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Could a Russian Ship Be Messing With Syria’s Underwater Internet Cables?

Speculation swirls online, but experts say it would be very difficult to pull off.

If you think some conspiracy theories are just too coincidental to be wrong, you're going to love this one. An internet outage expert at US internet monitor Dyn, along with several Twitter users and bloggers, believe that a secret Russian Navy spy ship may be tapping and disrupting underwater cables in the Mediterranean Sea that feed internet to Syria. While telecommunications experts argue that this isn't likely, several factors have aligned that seem to support this theory.

The story starts in September 2015, when the Russian naval vessel Yantar was suspected of spying on a US nuclear submarine fleet off the coast of Cuba. US intelligence believed the ship was collecting data from underwater cables in the Caribbean whilst also spying on the submarine fleet, and according to The New York Times, Yantar—which is officially designated as a Russian Navy oceanographic vessel—was also equipped with two autonomous submersible craft.

Fast forward to October 2016, and that same ship is moored off the coast of Syria, amidst ongoing internet outages in the country reported by Dyn. Both Syria and Lebanon have recently been experiencing internet routing instability, according to Dyn, and some believe the problems can be traced back to the Russian ship.

Image: Dyn

Doug Madory, an analyst at Dyn, told Motherboard that he has noticed a recent uptick of internet instability in Syria, and a source of his in Syria pointed to Syria's underwater internet cables as being the cause of the problems. This, along with Twitter speculation and a previous history of internet outages in Syria linked to combat offensives by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, suggest something of a conspiratorial nature may be at hand.

The Yantar's movements in the Mediterranean Sea have been logged over the past few weeks here in this publicly available Google Maps document, and there is an active community of Twitter users also tracking every movement of the Yantar.

"I'm not automatically someone who subscribes to this, but having said that, this ship is off the coast of Syria, it's ostensibly for research purposes, it seems reasonable," Madory told Motherboard over the phone today when discussing the feasibility of the theory. "There are two different threads of facts that are reliable. I've got data that shows there is routing instability in both Syria and Lebanon in the past week. And I've got a source in Syria who said it was submarine cable related. Those are facts. Then there's all this stuff about this ship. It's awfully coincidental."

Maritime blog Hisutton.com has also been tracking the vessel Yantar, and is using publicly available shipping data to monitor its proximity to Syrian underwater internet cables. The website shows the Yantar's position in relation to the subsea cables, routed from Cyprus to Syria.

Image: Hisutton.com/Google Maps

While the coincidences of the outages and the vessel's location are enough to fuel "isn't it strange?" types of theories about Russian involvement, Madory told Motherboard that experts in the submarine cable industry say this kind of tapping and disruption is not possible. "They dismiss out of hand any kind of technology that could tap submarine cables underwater, they don't believe it's possible at all," he said.

Alan Mauldin, a research director at telecommunications research firm TeleGeography, told Motherboard in an email that it seems unlikely submarine cables could be tapped. "I can't say for sure. But seems a bit far fetched," he said in an email. "Even if you attach a tap. How do you transit the take back to be processed? Seems too crazy to me but anything is possible. I can't say for sure but tapping on land is a lot easier."

Julian Rawle, a subsea cable consultant, told Motherboard that it would be "practically impossible" to tap into an underwater fiber optic cable. "You would physically have to break through the considerable amount of protective layers and then splice into the fibers. Doing this underwater would inevitably lead to water ingress which would seriously impair the cable's performance," he said. "I think someone would notice if a vessel this close to the coast actually picked up a cable."

Rawle suggested that instead of the Russians, it could be seismic activity to blame for the disruption, as the Eastern Mediterranean is an active seismic area.

Howard Kidorf, an optical transmission and telecom networks expert, also told Motherboard that tapping an underwater cable would be no easy task. "I get this question a lot," he said. "The short answer is that it is MUCH easier to get access to the signals in the terminal station (either with or without cooperation). It is technically possible to tap an optical fiber, but getting access to it on the bottom of the ocean, through the steel armoring and high voltage would be a challenge best avoided."

Still, according to Madory, "it does seem kind of suspicious." Motherboard has reached out to the Russian embassy in the UK for comment, and is awaiting a response. Thankfully though, for those eager detectives amongst you, there's a wealth of data to stalk online regarding the whereabouts and actions of the vessel Yantar. "Apparently there is a cottage industry of posting photos of Yantar to Twitter and tracking its location," said Madory, pointing Motherboard to another recent sighting of the ship.

When asked for comment, a spokesperson from the Russian Embassy in London said "We haven't seen this story, sorry."

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Update: This story has been updated with comment from a spokesperson in the Russian Embassy in London