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

2017 RIMS

RIMS Conference Opens in Birthplace of Insurance in US

Carriers continue their vital role of helping insureds mitigate risks and promote safety.
By: | April 21, 2017 • 4 min read

As RIMS begins its annual conference in Philadelphia, it’s worth remembering that the City of Brotherly Love is not just the birthplace of liberty, but it is the birthplace of insurance in the United States as well.

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin and members of Philadelphia’s first volunteer fire brigade conceived of an insurance company, eventually named The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire.

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For the first time in America — but certainly not for the last time – insurers became instrumental in protecting businesses by requiring safety inspections before agreeing to issue policies.

“That included fire brigades and the knowledge that a brick house was less susceptible to fire than a wood house,” said Martin Frappolli, director of knowledge resources at The Institutes.

It also included good hygiene habits, such as not placing oily rags next to a furnace and having a trap door to the roof to help the fire brigade fight roof and chimney blazes.

Businesses with high risk of fire, such as apothecary shops and brewers, were either denied policies or insured at significantly higher rates, according to the Independence Hall Association.

Robert Hartwig, co-director, Center of Risk and Uncertainty Management at the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina

Before that, fire was generally “not considered an insurable risk because it was so common and so destructive,” Frappolli said.

“Over the years, we have developed a lot of really good hygiene habits regarding the risk of fire and a lot of those were prompted by the insurance considerations,” he said. “There are parallels in a lot of other areas.”

Insurance companies were instrumental in the creation of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which helps create standards for electrical devices, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which works to improve the safety of vehicles and highways, said Robert Hartwig, co-director, Center of Risk and Uncertainty Management at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina and former president of the Insurance Information Institute.

Insurers have also been active through the years in strengthening building codes and promoting wiser land use and zoning rules, he said.

When shipping was the predominant mode of commercial transport, insurers were active in ports, making sure vessels were seaworthy, captains were experienced and cargoes were stored safety, particularly since it was the common, but hazardous, practice to transport oil in barrels, Hartwig said.

Some underwriters refused to insure ships that carried oil, he said.

When commercial enterprises engaged in hazardous activities and were charged more for insurance, “insurers were sending a message about risk,” he said.

In the industrial area, the common risk of boiler and machinery explosions led insurers to insist on inspections. “The idea was to prevent an accident from occurring,” Hartwig said. Insurers of the day – and some like FM Global and Hartford Steam Boiler continue to exist today — “took a very active and early role in prevention and risk management.”

Whenever insurance gets involved in business, the emphasis on safety, loss control and risk mitigation takes on a higher priority, Frappolli said.

“It’s a really good example of how consideration for insurance has driven the nature of what needs to be insured and leads to better and safer habits,” he said.

Workers’ compensation insurance prompted the same response, he said. When workers’ compensation laws were passed in the early 1900s, employee injuries were frequent and costly, especially in factories and for other physical types of work.

Because insurers wanted to reduce losses and employers wanted reduced insurance premiums, safety procedures were introduced.

“Employers knew insurance would cost a lot more if they didn’t do the things necessary to reduce employee injury,” Frappolli said.

Martin J. Frappolli, senior director of knowledge resources, The Institutes

Cyber risk, he said, is another example where insurance companies are helping employers reduce their risk of loss by increasing cyber hygiene.

Cyber risk is immature now, Frappolli said, but it’s similar in some ways to boiler and machinery explosions. “That was once horribly damaging, unpredictable and expensive,” he said. “With prompting from risk management and insurance, people were educated about it and learned how to mitigate that risk.

“Insurance is just one tool in the toolbox. A true risk manager appreciates and cares about mitigating the risk and not just securing a lower insurance rate.

“Someone looking at managing risk for the long term will take a longer view, and as a byproduct, that will lead to lower insurance rates.”

Whenever technology has evolved, Hartwig said, insurance has been instrumental in increasing safety, whether it was when railroads eclipsed sailing ships for commerce, or when trucking and aviation took precedence.

The risks of terrorism and cyber attacks have led insurance companies and brokers to partner with outside companies with expertise in prevention and reduction of potential losses, he said. That knowledge is transmitted to insureds, who are provided insurance coverage that results in financial resources even when the risk management methods fail to prevent a cyber attack.

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This year’s RIMS Conference in Philadelphia shares with risk managers much of the knowledge that has been developed on so many critical exposures. Interestingly enough, the opening reception is at The Franklin Institute, which celebrates some of Ben Franklin’s innovations.

But in-depth sessions on a variety of industry sectors as well as presentations on emerging risks, cyber risk management, risk finance, technology and claims management, as well as other issues of concern help risk managers prepare their organizations to face continuing disruption, and take advantage of successful mitigation techniques.

“This is just the next iteration of the insurance world,” Hartwig said. “The insurance industry constantly reinvents itself. It is always on the cutting edge of insuring new and different risks and that will never change.” &

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]