Telecom as Critical Infrastructure: Looking Beyond the Cyber Threat

Much of the discussion around cyber security of critical infrastructure focuses on the debilitating impact of a cyber attack on a country’s energy, economic, and transportation backbone. But Russia’s recent actions suggest an elevation of telecommunications as the most critical of all infrastructures—and the one it deems most worthy of protecting, not only because of the risks it may face, but also because of its potential as a mechanism for advancing national interests.

In March 2014, cyber attacks between Russia and Ukraine began when unknown hackers attacked Russian central bank and foreign ministry websites, and Ukrainian government websites were hit by an onslaught of 42 attacks during the Crimean vote for secession. Amid this back-and-forth volley of cyber attacks, Russia has quickly and quietly invested almost $25 million to provide Internet and telecom infrastructure in Crimea by deploying a fiber-optic submarine telecom link between the mainland and its newest territory. Rather than focusing on switching water, transportation, or electricity to Russian infrastructure, it has prioritized the establishment of telecommunications networks, turning this critical infrastructure into a tactic in and of itself.

By owning the telecom connections into Crimea, Russia ensures security for its communications there and eliminates Ukrainian disruptions. Russia’s telecom investments suggest that in the 21st century, national priorities in times of conflict have been reorganized around the assurance of secure telecommunications even before the assurance of traditional critical infrastructure security.

The threats to critical infrastructure are real and significant, but this prioritization of telecommunications as a tool of international relations suggests that we should pay attention not only to the cyber security risks to critical infrastructure, but also to how countries are using this very infrastructure as a tactic during times of conflict.