After two underwater cable cuts in the Middle East last week severely impacted countries from Dubai to India, alert netizens voiced suspicions that someone -- most likely Al Qaeda -- intentionally severed the cables for their own nefarious purposes, or that the U.S. cut them as a lead-in to an attack on Iran.
Then two more cables failed in the same area, one in a segment connecting Qatar to an island in the United Arab Emirates, and another in a link between Oman and the UAE. The former wasn't even a cut -- it was a power failure, but you can't keep a good conspiracy theory down; some news sites are even reporting incorrectly that Iran is cut off from the internet, and claiming that there's a fifth cut, which turns out to be an unexceptional cable failure from weeks ago.
Stephan Beckert of TeleGeography Research says it's all a bit much.
"I'm much more worried about terrorists blowing up people than cables," Beckert said. "If you cut a cable, all you are doing is inconveniencing a lot of people."
Only the first two cuts had any serious impact on the internet, says Beckert. Those cables near Alexandria, Egypt account for 76 percent of the capacity through the Suez canal -- connecting Europe with the Middle East, North Africa and the India sub-continent.
Once those failures sensitized a conspiracy-happy net, it was natural that other cable failures would be found to feed the frenzy, because they occur all the time.
"Cable cuts happen on average once every three days," Beckert said. There are 25 large ships that do nothing but fix cable cuts and bends, Beckert adds.
While any severed cable is a "cut" in the parlance of telecom, most often they're the result of cables rubbing against sea floor rocks, eventually cutting through the copper shielding and exposing the thin fiber optics inside.
Normally, netizens have no idea when there are cable cuts since large providers instantly re-route communications through other cables.
"These outages don't usually affect end users," Beckert said. "For example, Verizon doesn't just have one link across the Atlantic, they have seven, eight or nine they can route capacity on."
Professional terrorist fear monger Annie Jacobsen says Middle Eastern governments are lying about the real reason for the cuts. 9/11 truthers suggested the cuts came in preparation for a U.S. government-faked terrorist attack on the Super Bowl. Bloggers have suggested that the cuts are cover for the NSA installing taps on the lines using the U.S.S. Jimmy Carter. The commander, though, seems to have an alibi.
That said, even some security experts who early on dismissed suggestions of intentional sabotage are starting to get a little suspicious.
Take Columbia University Professor Steven Bellovin, a computer security and networking expert, for one:
As a security guy, I'm paranoid, but I don't understand the threat model here. On the other hand, four accidental failures in a week is a bit hard to swallow, too. Let's hope there will be close, open examination of the failed parts of the cables.
Last week Todd Underwood, a vice president at internet analysis firm Renesys, told THREAT LEVEL that outages are to be be expected. But on Wednesday, he sounded a more cautious note.
"There's a little cause to be suspicious but there is no smoking gun," Underwood said.
If the cuts were deliberate, one has to answer the question of means, motive and opportunity. Since it's not that hard to sever an unprotected cable, the real question is motive, according to Underwood.
"Its difficult to tell what the motive would be: is it just to annoy people?" Underwood said. "If it were targeted, the targeting is bad. The loonies on the American left say this was us targeting Iran. If this is us targeting Iran, we are much worse than I thought we were."
"Are we really targeting India or Pakistan?" Underwood asked incredulously.
The real answer will likely come once the repair ships begin pulling up the cable from the sea floor to repair it in the coming days and weeks, according to Underwood.
"Then we will know quite a bit more," Underwood said. "Does it look like an anchor hit or did someone take an acetylene torch to it?"
Photo: Map of FALCON network via Flag Telecom