Business Interruption Risk

Severed Communications

Businesses face risks from undersea data cable vulnerabilities.
By: | August 3, 2016 • 7 min read

Crisscrossing the ocean floor, undersea optical fiber data cables are an essential component of an increasingly interconnected world, quietly carrying massive amounts of data communications between the Earth’s landmasses.

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But they are not invulnerable. Individual cables are severed or damaged dozens of times each year, most commonly by fishing boat anchors, but also by storms, scrap collectors and even shark bites.

The U.S. and other major markets, like Europe and Japan, are served by numerous cables, providing enough redundancy that traffic from a single damaged cable is rerouted before end users even notice. Wider outages, however, can have more far-reaching effects.


VIDEO: IDG.TV follows along as undersea data cables are manufactured and then loaded aboard a ship to place them in the ocean.

That’s why in October 2015, when Russian ships were observed lurking near undersea data cables, U.S. military and intelligence officials were concerned about possible sabotage.

Some experts, however, see that as unlikely.

“Cables during peacetime are protected by law under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” said Keith Schofield, general manager of the International Cable Protection Committee, representing the submarine cable community of interest.

Attempted sabotage, he said, would likely be detectable and stopped before any significant harm could be done to trunk cable routes.

“Before 10 or 20 percent of them were affected, owners would realize that something pretty serious was happening and could respond appropriately.”

Sean Donahue, assistant vice president and underwriter, XL Catlin

Sean Donahue, assistant vice president and underwriter, XL Catlin

Sean Donahue, an assistant vice president and underwriter specializing in cyber and technology at XL Catlin, agreed.

“These commercial cables have too much intrinsic value,” Donahue said. “Anybody who may have that sort of capability, such as Russia … would be hurting their own self-interest.”

Seismic activity, however, has been known to damage enough cables to cause wide service interruptions and service degradation, even in areas with ample cable connections.

A 2006 earthquake in Taiwan severed several undersea cables, causing major disruptions in Asia and ripple effects that interrupted phone service to Europe. Smaller incidents can have far reaching impacts, as well.

In 2013, a string of separate cable cuts in Egypt caused widespread data slowdowns in large portions of Africa and Asia.

And a single cut off of Northern Ireland in 2015 sparked headlines claiming it had “sent broadband into meltdown.”

When cables are cut, rerouted data can overwhelm unaffected networks, causing slowdowns even for those not directly affected. Smaller countries with less redundancy — and the companies doing business with them — can suffer substantial repercussions from such events.

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Even in the U.S., outages involving multiple cables could cause data traffic to be rerouted to undersea cables on the opposite side of the country, potentially triggering domestic slowdowns along the way.

As businesses become increasingly dependent on fast data communications, even minor slowdowns can impede business. For web-centric and cloud-based companies, as well as content providers, such slowdowns could be a serious problem.

According to TeleGeography, a data cable industry research firm, Google and Bing report that minor lags lead to decreased click-throughs and search result views, and “Amazon has claimed that every 100 milliseconds of latency reduces its sales by 1 percent.”

High-frequency trading companies sometimes own dedicated data cables, but others are dependent on the same networks as the rest of us, and if those networks slow down, it hampers performance and costs them money.

Built with Redundancy

The undersea cable industry goes to great lengths to ensure uninterrupted service.

Peter Jamieson, chair, European Subsea Cable Association

Peter Jamieson, chair, European Subsea Cable Association

“The systems are built with redundancy in mind,” said Peter Jamieson, chair of the industry group European Subsea Cable Association.

“You should always aim to have at least two cables from each operator so that if you lose one cable … you automatically switch onto the other one. The redundancy is built into the network on the global network as well.”

Excess capacity is also built into the system. Most cables were originally built to handle optical data traffic in a single wavelength, but they now use a technique called Dense Wave Division Multiplexing (DWDM), which handles many wavelengths.

“We are now getting potentially 400 times the capacity on one optical fiber than what you probably got 15 to 20 years ago,” Jamieson said.

Routing protocols ensure that in the case of a service interruption, data instantaneously finds alternate routes.  And the different cable owners work together in various consortia to operate roughly 60 cable-repair ships throughout the world, which are on call to ensure that any damage is repaired quickly. Repairs generally take a minimum of four days to complete.

R8-16p47-48_8Cables.indd

But according to Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing at Esri, a software company specializing in geographic information systems, it is not inconceivable that the individual smart systems meant to ensure seamless rerouting could have unexpected results — much the way automated trading programs can produce dramatic and unexplained lows or highs in financial markets.

“Those individual response plans come together and aggregate in such a way that they themselves might have an impact,” Thompson said.

“It’s like the butterfly effect. … That’s increasingly the nature of connectivity and a consequence of the very widespread, multi-point-of-touch communications network that we rely on.”

While DWDM vastly increased capacity on data cables, demand and usage have been steadily catching up as businesses and individuals demand and depend on more and more data.

A company called Hibernia Express recently laid a pair of superfast transatlantic cables, the first new cables in 13 years. More may be on the way.

“The content people want to have their own fibers right now,” said Jamieson.

“Can you prove that you would have made X amount of dollars versus Y amount of dollars because of a degraded service?” — Sean Donahue, assistant vice president and underwriter, at XL Catlin

“So the Facebooks, Googles, Amazons and Microsofts of this world … they want to have their own fiber to control their own traffic on cable, so they are driving a lot of new systems as well.”

It is a sign of how seriously data-driven businesses take their dependence on fast, dependable transmission infrastructure.

As data usage skyrockets, Thompson cautioned against taking network resiliency and capacity for granted.

“We could be in a situation where ‘out of sight, out of mind’ [and] all these things are running at 99 percent capacity, and we’re one point … away from total failure.

“We don’t know. I’m not suggesting that is the case, but it behooves us to provide evidence that we have redundancy and resilience in the systems that we’ve become reliant on. We increasingly are engineering our future to be more dependent on them.”

Smart houses, self-driving cars, and other web-dependent gadgets and systems will not only add to data traffic, but to the list of systems that could malfunction in the case of outages and slowdowns, opening new areas of risk for homeowners, as well.

Protecting Data Flows

Traditional business interruption coverage focuses on perils like flood and fire, power outages and physical infrastructure failures.

Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing, Esri

Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing, Esri

“But, when we move to businesses where data is a utility, we have a different sort of business interruption, and that is going to be increasingly important to service-based economies,” said Thompson.

“We think about site liability and data breaches, but what I think we’re going to start moving to more and more is providing business interruption insurance around data.”

Cloud coverage insurance is still a rarity, but probably not for long. “Many more companies should think about cloud computing insurance,” she said.

“It will become a vital part of what’s included in business interruption insurance.”

Businesses should know their providers’ contractual obligations and dependent business interruption coverage in case of outages, as spelled out in the service level agreement, she said.

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“More and more major businesses are expecting that as part of their service level agreement,” Thompson said.

“I think that will become an integral part of the transfer of risk and liability.  If you’re completely dependent upon the web and the cloud to do business, and you don’t protect yourself with a service agreement on the cloud provider, you’re going to be subject to claims from other people.  So, that discussion with your insurance provider should be absolutely central.”

Even with coverage, however, calculating business interruption losses, especially for traders and other market-dependent businesses, can be extremely difficult, particularly during incidents that may themselves be roiling the markets.

“Can you prove that you would have made X amount of dollars versus Y amount of dollars because of a degraded service?” Donahue asked. “There’s a lot of moving parts to that scenario.” &

Jon McGoran is a novelist and magazine editor based outside of Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

R&I Profile

Achieving Balance

XL Catlin’s Denise Balan stays calm and focused when faced with crisis.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 6 min read

In the high-stress scenario of kidnap or ransom, the first image that comes to mind isn’t necessarily a yoga mat — at least, not for most.

But Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin, who practices yoga every day, would swear by it.

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“I looked at these opposing aspects of my life,” she said. “Yoga is about focus, balance, clarity of intent. In a moment of stress, how do you respond? The more clarity and calmness you maintain, the better positioned you are to provide assistance in moments of crisis.

“Nobody wants to be speaking to a frenetic person when either dealing with a dangerous situation or planning for prevention of a situation,” she added.

“There’s a poem by [Rudyard] Kipling on that,” added Balan’s colleague Ben Tucker. “What it boils down to is: If you can remain calm, you can manage through a crisis a lot better.”

Tucker, who works side by side with Balan as head of U.S. terrorism and political violence, XL Catlin, has seen how yoga influences his colleague.

“The way Denise interacts with stakeholders in this process — she is very professional and calm in the approach she takes.”

Yin and Yang

Sometimes seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary and interconnected. In Balan’s life, yoga and K&R have become her yin and yang.

She entered the insurance world after earning a juris doctor degree and practicing law for a few years. The switch came, she said, when Balan realized she wasn’t enjoying her time as a commercial litigator.

Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

In her new role, she was able to use her legal background to manage litigation at AIG, where her transition from law to insurance took place. She started her insurance career in the environmental sector.

In a chance meeting in 2007, Balan met with crisis management underwriters who told her about kidnap and ransom products.

She was hooked.

Because of her background in yoga, Balan liked the crisis management side of the job. Being able to bring the calmness and clearness of intent she practiced during yoga into assisting clients in planning for crisis management piqued her interest.

She then joined XL Catlin in July 2013, where she built the K&R team.

As she became more immersed in her field, Balan began to notice something: The principles she learned in yoga were the same principles ex-military and ex-law enforcement practiced when called to a K&R-related crisis.

She said, “They have a warrior mentality — focus, purpose, strength and logic — and I would say yoga is quite similar in discipline.”

“K&R responders have a warrior mentality — focus, purpose, strength and logic — and I would say yoga is quite similar in discipline.” — Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

Many understand yoga to be, in itself, one type of meditation, but yoga actually encompasses a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices. Each is a discipline. Some forms of yoga focus on movement and breathing, others focus on posture and technique. Some yoga is meant to relax the mind and create a sense of calmness; other yoga types make participants sweat.

After having her second child and working full-time, Balan wanted to find something physical and relaxing for herself; a friend suggested yoga. During her first lesson, Balan said she was enamored with it.

“I felt like I’d done it all my life.”

She dove into the philosophy of yoga, adopting the practice into her daily routine. Every morning, whether Balan is in her Long Island home or on a business trip, she pulls out her yoga mat to practice.

“I always travel with my mat,” she said. “Daily practice is the simplest form of connection to routine to maintain my balance — physically and mentally.”

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She said the strangest place she has ever practiced was in Lisbon. She was on a very narrow balcony with a bird feeder swarming with sparrows overhead.

After years of studying and practicing, Balan is considered a yogi — someone who is highly proficient in yoga. She attends annual retreats with her yoga group, where she is able to rejuvenate, ready to tackle any K&R event when she returns.

In 2016, Balan visited Tuscany, Italy, where she learned the practice of yoga nidra, a very deep form of meditation. It’s described as the “going-to-sleep stage” — a type of yoga that brings participants to a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.

“It awakens a different part of your brain,” Balan commented. “Orally describing it doesn’t quite do it justice. One has to practice Nidra to fully understand the effect it has on your being.”

Keeping a level head during a crisis is key in their line of business, Tucker said. He can attest to the benefit of having a yogi on board.

“I’ve seen her run table-top exercises where there is this group of people in a room and they run an exercise, a simulation of a kidnap incident. Denise is very committed to what we’re doing,” said Tucker.

“She brings that energy. She doesn’t get flustered by much.”

Building a K&R Program

When Balan joined XL Catlin, she was tasked with creating the K&R team.

Balan during a retreat in Sicily, Italy, 2017

She spent time researching and analyzing what clients would want in their K&R coverage. What stuck out most to Balan was the fact that, in these situations, the decision to purchase kidnap and ransom cover is rarely made because of desire for reimbursement of money.

“I asked why people buy this type of coverage. The answer was for the security responders,” she said.

“These are the people who sit with the family. They’re similar to psychologists or priests,” Balan further explained. “Corporations can afford to pay ransom. They buy [K&R] because it gives them access to these trained and dedicated professionals who not only provide negotiation advice, but actually sit with a victim’s family, engaging deep levels of emotional investment.”

“I’ve learned to appreciate all moments in life — one at a time. The ability to think clearly and calmly guides my work, my practice and my personal life.” — Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

Balan described these responders as people having total clarity of purpose, setting their intentions to resolve a crisis — a practice at the very heart of yoga. She knew XL Catlin’s new kidnap program would put stock in their responders.

“I’ve worked closely with the responders to better understand what they can do for our clientele. These are the people who run into danger — warrior hearts married to dedication to our clients’ best interests.”

But K&R is more than fast-paced crisis and quick thinking; Balan also spent a good deal of time writing the K&R form and getting the company’s resources in order. This was a huge task to tackle when creating the program from the ground up.

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“A lot of my day-to-day is speaking with brokers and finding ways to enhance our product,” she said.

After a few months, she was able to hire the company’s first K&R underwriter. From there, the program has grown. It’s left her feeling professionally rewarded.

“People don’t often get that opportunity to build something up from scratch,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience — rewarding and fun.”

“She brings groups of people together,” said Tucker. “She’s created a positive environment.”

Balan’s yogi nature extends beyond the office walls, too. Her pride and joy, she said, are her kids. And while it may seem like two large parts of her life are opposite in nature, Balan’s achieved balance through her passions.

“[Yoga] has given me the ability to see beyond only one aspect of any situation” she said. “I’ve learned to appreciate all moments in life — one at a time. The ability to think clearly and calmly guides my work, my practice and my personal life.” &

Autumn Heisler is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]