Apr 10 2009

Yes, Virginia, our infrastructure really is this fragile

Published by at 5:11 am under Government,Hacking,Risk

All it took was a hacksaw and a few minutes underground and someone was able to take down internet, phone and cell phone coverage for much of the south Bay Area here in CaliforniaFour fiber optic cables in San Jose and two more in San Carlos were cut yesterday effectively taking most of Silicon Valley off line and causing thousands to lose their connectivity and be without services for hours.  And now AT&T is offering a $100,000 reward for any information that will help them catch the person who cut the cables.

So why would someone cut these six cables?  This had to be someone who had some experience with AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, since they knew not only where to find the cables underground, but knew which cables to cut to cause the maximum damage.  Which means this was thought out and intentional.  My first thought is that it’s some Hollywood movie caper where the bad guy’s are trying to silence an alarm at one of the businesses affected by the outage so they can perform dastardly deeds undisturbed.  My second thought is that it’s someone using this to cover up some sort of wire tapping they’re putting in place while everyone’s attention is gathered elsewhere in the infrastructure.  Someone who’s not a governmental agency, due to the loud nature of the event; they’d be much quieter and just install something in the basement of AT&T. Except that’s already been done.

But the reality is probably closer to a disgruntled employee who was recently laid off by one of the companies affected by this event.  Someone who knew enough about the infrastructure to understand where the systems would be most vulnerable, know how to get to the cables and know how to cut the least of them to be the most effective.  While the overall infrastructure of the Internet and our communications systems are generally robust, this event proves that connectivity to a specific area can be easily disrupted if you know where the pressure points are and how to affect them.  This might be knowledge that can be gained in some other way, but the simplest explanation is that it was someone who’d worked on theses specific networks and knew exactly how to cause the most damage quickly.  If you’re someone who’s recently been laid off by one of the companies affected, don’t be surprised if you get a knock on your door by an investigative agency in the next couple of days.

In reality, this wasn’t much more damage than might be caused by a severe winter storm downing a couple of trees, but the amount of press coverage it’s created is far more damaging to the telecom companies than a downed tree would be.  It shows that despite all the redundancy that they advertise, or at least is assumed by most people, they still have portions of their networks that can be taken offline with a couple snips.  This is not the sort of embarrassment that any company wants to have aired so publicly.  No wonder they’re offering such a big reward; the PR to recover from this is going to cost them a lot more than the reward itself.  And what if the vandal strikes again, perhaps somewhere even more vital?  Some sort of explosive placed in the right part of downtown San Francisco could take a heck of a lot more than 60,000 people offline for a long time.  Don’t be surprised if we see this labeled as ‘terrorism’ and have the alert level raised in the Bay Area until this person is caught.

Update:  I wish I’d seen this article before writing my own.  I hadn’t know there were contract negotiations going on between AT&T and the folks who do a majority of their repair work.  That could provide a heck of a lot of motivation to someone who’s affected by the lapsed contracts.  And explain why a hacksaw was used instead of something more destructive.

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