The possibility of Russia cutting off the internet to France and causing it “extreme difficulty” is a “credible threat”, the French army ministry and the director of the mobile network Orange France have warned.
The internet is connected by hundreds of fibre optic cables that run across the seabed, including from Europe to Asia, and to the United States (with the latter making up 80% of traffic from Europe).
Each link costs several million euros, and is financed by telecoms operators along with internet giants such as Google.
France is connected to the web by 51 of these underwater cables. Some are more important than others, with these larger links dubbed “megacables”.
Russian vessels technically have the capacity to cut these cables, and the country has been “interested” in these connections for years, said Jean-Luc Vuillemin, international network director at Orange, in an interview with FranceInfo.
He said: “It would be enough to cut two or three of these megacables for France to find itself in an extremely difficult situation.”
The exact position of the cables is not public knowledge, but if the information were to fall into hostile hands, it could cause a security threat.
Orange is part of around 40 consortiums that manage and oversee the security of these underwater cables.
Mr Vuillemin said: “Russia has been interested in these cables for a long time. We recently identified a spy vessel connected to the Russian ministry of defence, and a class of submarines with the capacity to work at extreme depths. They are picked up extremely frequently near cable concentration points.”
‘A new field of conflict’
In February, Army Minister in France, Florence Parly, presented a strategy dubbed “mastering the depths”, which said that “the deep sea represents a new field of conflict in the same way as cyberspace or the information sphere”.
International and national marines monitor the cables 365 days per year.
Submarine captain Eric Lavault told FranceInfo that the threat from Russia is genuine. He said: “The job of the military is to plan and envisage all types of hypotheses. This hypothesis is part of it, even if we do not foresee a Russian offensive at this stage. But we are prepared.”
However, it is not physically possible to have an army presence across all marine areas at once, nor to operate protection over every cable, which would amount to more than a million kilometres of surveillance.
In France, the national marines do not have the technology to access the deepest parts of the sea, where cables can sit at depths of several thousand metres.
Two weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ms Parly said: “I have taken the decision to equip our forces with means to reach 6,000 metres [deep]. This enables them to cover 97% of deep-sea areas and protect our interests effectively.”
France reliant on foreign servers
Russia appears to have been nationalising much of its digital infrastructure over the past few years, meaning that a disconnection of deep-sea cables would have a minimal impact on the country’s own functioning, due to its use of national servers.
The country also has many of its own apps, and its own search engine, Yandex.
In contrast, France is largely dependent on foreign servers, and therefore on the deep-sea cables.
Alexandre Schon, a specialist and researcher in telecommunications geography, told FranceInfo: “The thing about a cable is that it can be cut.”
He recommended that “instead of spending huge amounts of money on monitoring these cables, it might be wise to increase the resilience of our networks by creating autonomous ecosystems”.
Mr Schon said that France’s presidential election campaign candidates would do well to consider how and where millions of individuals’ data are stored, and which private companies are trusted with the management of said resources.
It comes after around 10,000 people in France were affected by a “cyber event”, believed to be of Russian origin, which happened shortly after the Ukraine war began.
Not long after Putin’s forces attacked Ukraine, the global high-speed satellite broadband Viasat was hit by a cyberattack, leading some people in France to have issues connecting their modems.
“Such an attack is comparable to an act of war in our territory,” one internet expert told Le Figaro.