Slowdowns in Internet traffic in the Middle East and South Asia earlier this week were likely the work of hackers. Hackers in the traditional sense: The Egyptian Navy caught three men hacking into an undersea cable. And it's a bigger problem than it seems.

According to the Associated Press, the Egyptian Navy announced the arrest on its official Facebook page yesterday. The AP translates the Navy's statement:

Egypt’s naval forces captured three scuba divers who were trying to cut an undersea Internet cable in the Mediterranean on Wednesday ...

[D]ivers were arrested while “cutting the undersea cable” of the country’s main communications company, Telecom Egypt. The statement said they were caught on a speeding fishing boat just off the port city of Alexandria.

The image at right is from the Facebook page, and allegedly shows the saboteurs and their equipment.

The cable that was damaged was the SMW-4, which its website (it has a website) indicates travels from Marseilles in the south of France to Singapore. TeleGeography's Submarine Cable Map shows the route the cable takes.

It's one of a number of cables that come inland at Alexandria near the historic Citadel of Qaitbay, below, as documented in Neal Stephenson's December 1996 overview of cable networks for Wired. Cut the SMW-4 there, and you have an effect on countries in three continents.

While cables are regularly damaged by fishermen or boat anchors, lines have also been intentionally cut a number of times before. In 2007, as a report published by the US Naval Institute indicates, Vietnamese pirates stole parts of an cable near that country. In February 2008, outages on five separate underseas cables were attributed to sabotage by a UN official.

The USNI report also suggests that the offshore cables could be a tempting target for terrorists — and the damage could be significant. Even small delays in internet transmissions can, for example, have serious economic repercussions. One of the key benefits of a new line run last year between London and New York was that it would reduce transmission speeds from 64.8 milliseconds to 59.6. For people making electronic trades, that's a massive improvement. More serious damage, an outage that completely cripples communications, offers a much broader and obvious set of problems.

Not that there's much that can be done. It's not clear how Egypt caught the saboteurs, although it appears they were operating fairly close to the coast. There are thousands of miles of accessible, unprotected cable lying on the ocean floor, running onto lightly protected beaches around the world. All of the effort and consideration put into online security means little when three guys in scuba suits can severely damage communications between nearly a dozen countries.