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

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]