For millions of commercial and residential customers, their connection to the Internet is an essential service. So it would probably come as quite a shock to discover just how vulnerable their connection is. For most businesses, a loss of service could stop them being able to function. Residents could lose their phone service and the ability to work from home.

For years Internet security has meant protection against computer viruses, malware and malicious code on websites. Most computers today are protected by firewalls and anti-virus software but even some of the most sophisticated networks can be defeated by cyber attacks.

Just recently a number of universities across the U.K. lost their Internet connections when their network was brought down by a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. Most people will remember other instances such as when Target was hacked and the Ashley Madison data breach.

The website categorizes cyber attacks into cyber crime, hacktivism, cyber espionage and cyber warfare. The majority of cyber attacks are by criminals trying to obtain personal information such as credit card numbers and other banking information but the next most common is hackers often with some type of political agenda.

But it isn’t just the virtual world that can be a threat. The actual physical connection can be damaged by weather, accident or deliberately. The entire Internet is mostly connected through cables whether by fiber or copper, which may be above ground, underground or beneath the sea.

Protecting fiber and cable  

Some cables are extremely important. If you use a highway system as an analogy, then the major freeways would be called backbones. These backbones are usually high capacity fiber cables that carry thousands of Internet connections.

Other than weather-related issues most cable damage is caused by accident. The most common is from construction companies that don’t check on the presence of underground cables before they dig. Because backbones are so important they are often buried underground and if damaged a huge number of customers may be affected.

Other culprits include squirrels who love to chew through the protective coating around fiber cable and vehicles that collide with utility poles bringing down overhead cabling. But not all damage is accidental.

Copper cable is quite valuable and thieves will steal large quantities of it. They sometimes mistakenly think fiber is valuable if cut into segments. Although a single fiber strand is capable of carrying a huge amount of data it does so through a pencil-thin cable that is relatively simple to cut.

Vandalism and sabotage accounts for some of the deliberate damage. It’s important to protect the termination point of an Internet cable by installing it in a secure lockable enclosure that will also protect it from the elements. Burglars may also seek to cut the Internet cable as it often carries security signals as well as communications.

There has been concern lately about the presence of Russian submarines and spy ships in areas where there are vital undersea cables. If these cables were attacked it could cripple global Internet communication. With tensions building for some time, the worry is the Russians may sever cables at the most difficult-to-access locations. Meaning the damage could take quite some time to repair.

It’s not just the Russians to worry about. Terrorist attacks could come in the form of cyber warfare or damaging critical infrastructure. Although a lot of effort is put into protecting data it may be surprising how poorly defended much of our essential cabling is.

Hopefully with that amount of risk governments will take more action to protect the Internet, both virtually and physically.