International submarine fiber optic cables traverse many of the same routes that sailing ships followed in centuries gone by. In one sense, that’s not such a surprise. If goods move between the U.S. and Britain, say, then information is going to flow that way to something like the same extent. Even so, an interactive graphic on Vox.com brings that relationship to life in a fascinating way, by combining a shipping map from 1912 with the latest edition of Telegeograhy’s submarine cable wall map, published retro-style with everything except Here be Dragons included.
It also says something about the way the world has changed in the past century. In 1912, transatlantic trade routes also included regular service between commercial centers of colonial empires. Those kinds of direct connections to developing countries are much rarer today. Cable routes are now centered on the U.S. and a handful of other hubs in developed nations, although that’s slowly changing, partly due to growing demand and partly to concerns about any particular country having too much control over, and access to, international data traffic.
One of the exceptions is the Atlantis-2 cable that links Brazil and Cape Verde Islands with former coloniser Portugal, as well as locations on the African continent. A new route, the South Atlantic Cable System, is slated for 2017 and would bring lusaphone Angola into the fold. Other cables are planned between Brazil and South Africa, and directly to Portugal, again following centuries old trade routes.
If you want to know where submarine fiber is likely to be laid over the next decade, just pull out an old sailing chart.
Expect more lines in the future to bypass the U.S.
If there was ever any doubt that there’s no privacy on the Internet, the latest nuggets from Edward Snowden’s trove of documents detailing U.S. electronic spying efforts should remove it. Stories on the ProPublica.org website and in the New York Times show how telecommunications companies have cooperated with the National Security Agency to trawl emails that pass through their systems, regardless of where the messages originate or where they are destined. According to the ProPublica story, AT&T was singled out in the documents for its “extreme willingness to help” the NSA…
In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed NSA documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the NSA said amounted to a “‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the [AT&T-run surveillance] program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.
The original documents are posted alongside the ProPublica story, and make for interesting reading. Slide presentations show how an email sent to Brazil from Iran will naturally pass through a commercial server in the U.S., due to “international choke points”, “least cost routing” and other perfectly ordinary technical characteristics of the Internet.
It’s not just compliant telecoms companies that give the NSA this immense trawling capability. It also results from the fundamental architecture of the Internet, which is largely centered in and managed by the U.S.
Expect far greater international pressure to change this status quo as a result of these revelations. Even friendly countries will want alternative data paths that don’t pass through U.S. hands.