U.S. is not taking adequate measures to protect underseas cables, starting with failing to ratify UNCLOS to provide legal protection for them
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Perhaps even more troubling than the above-mentioned structural vulnerability of undersea cables is the lack of security efforts and criminal sanctions by governments to protect undersea cables and deter future attacks. U.S. National Intelligence director James Clapper recently testified that cyber attacks, (by which he meant purely digital attacks like computer worms or viruses that can shut down the electrical grid or financial markets),69 are the nation's number one security priority.70 Clapper highlighted how much governments, utilities, and financial services rely on the Internet and therefore are vulnerable to cyber attack.71 Yet at the same time, protection of undersea cables (a critical infrastructure that supports the Internet) from physical attacks is sorely lacking. For example, in the United States, the willful destruction of an international submarine cable is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison and a mere $5,000 fine.72 This fine is hardly a deterrent, and is far out of proportion to the damage that such an act would cause. Furthermore, the United States has not joined the 162 countries that have signed onto the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).73 As a result, there are no UNCLOS security protections for U.S. undersea cables outside of U.S. waters.74 Only Australia and Singapore have created a single point of contact within their governments to address issues of undersea cable security and to coordinate with cable owners to combat hostile actions.75 On a worldwide level, no organization is responsible for undersea cables and there have been no international tests of cable defense systems.76 The maintenance and security of the cables is left to private trade organizations.77 Given the extent to which governments themselves rely on these cables,78 the current lack of a coherent undersea cable security strategy by governments must be remedied. The infrastructure itself is vulnerable, and governments like the United States are not yet taking adequate actions to protect it. It is not enough for governments like the United States to focus on digital attacks on Internet systems. They must also take action to protect the physical structure of the Internet.79
Currently the vital U.S. underseas cable industry has to rely on the outdated 1884 telegraph treaty for its legal basis when defending its rights to lay, maintain, and repair underseas cables. U.S. ratification of UNCLOS would better protect U.S. companies’ existing cable systems and foster additional investments by giving telecommunications the legal certainty to their claims that they need.