A series of attacks on physical broadband network resources disrupted Internet connectivity for subscribers in a number of Northern California counties. Normally, when subscribers think about online security, they think about actual online threats: data breaches, viruses, scams, and the like.
However, offline attacks on the fiber cables that keep us connected show our connectivity isn’t as secure as most people think. And this isn’t the first time this has happened either. There was a similar attack in 2009 that disrupted phone and Internet service in four California counties. And vandals accidentally knocked out local Internet connections in Arizona earlier this year for as long as 15 hours for some residents.
When the Internet Is Vulnerable, So Are We
These attacks highlight some disturbing realities about our dependence on the Internet. If all the attacks had done was made it impossible to view cat videos for half a day, it would have been no big deal. But today, many of our telecommunications services operate over the same stretches of fiberoptic cable. When the Internet went down in Arizona, it took down credit card readers, 911 call centers, and ATMs. In the 2009 California attacks, consumer phone service was interrupted. Integrating systems are great—right until something goes wrong. Then, instead of one thing going wrong, several things go wrong at once.
Efficiency vs. Safety
Today, many customers receive Internet, phone, and TV service via fiber. Doing so is a cost-effective use of resources, so it’s practical. From an engineering standpoint, doing more with less is also elegant. There are countless examples of industries in which streamlining these kind of redundancies has lead to significant advances.
However, there are plenty of other industries in which a lack of redundancy is a liability, not a goal. Airliners are built with triple-redundant flight systems—they’re heavier and more complex than a single system, but they’re far safer: if one fails, the plane won’t crash. No one whose heart ever skipped a beat after hearing an unfamiliar noise at 30,000 feet complains about this kind of redundancy. Should something as important to our daily lives as the Internet be any different?
What Can We Do About It?
Many phone providers don’t want to pay for maintenance on copper phone lines that they, and to be fair, many experts, believe to be obsolete. In California, maintenance of these legacy networks is required by law, but has also been used as an example of the kind of regulation holding California back from faster network speeds. However, legacy copper networks work when the power goes out, and represent a viable option—if not an ideal solution—for useful communications redundancy.
By the same token, even though bundling TV and Internet represents a great cost savings, we’d hate to see TV networks abandon over-the-air broadcasting entirely. Even if you don’t think you need it now, a digital TV antenna could come in handy should vandals, or anyone else, target your connection to the outside world wide web.
But Why Would Someone Attack Our Networks?
For now, it looks as if the attacks are only small-scale vandalism. But what if they weren’t?
We have it so good in this country that we think the very notion of someone attacking our infrastructure in this way is downright paranoid. But imagine the chaos that a large-scale, total disruption of Internet access could do to this country. Attacking fiber can potentially eliminate subscriber’s access to data available via phone, Internet, and TV. With those services down, paying for goods, reporting emergencies and summoning emergency responders, and getting accurate information all become much more difficult.
Don’t Be Afraid or Naïve.
Planning only for the best and assuming nothing bad will ever happen is a big mistake. You wear a seatbelt when you drive your car, and you have a fire extinguisher in your home. You take these precautions not because you’re consumed with fear, but because they’re easy and effective. Those are the kind of solutions we should be pursuing for our networks’ physical security. Placing our fiber cables in armored tunnels may be a bit excessive, but when disrupting service to thousands requires nothing more than a pair of wire cutters, it’s hard to deny that we need to address the problem somehow.
We don’t want you to be afraid. You don’t need to hoard gold bars in your mattress or to learn Morse code, but have a little cash on hand. Have a radio or two, with batteries, so you can get information—just in case. And if you don’t have a fast, reliable broadband connection now, get one. Don’t let fear of potential problems keep you from enjoying all the benefits that come with fast Internet speeds. Rely on the Internet, but just don’t become dependent on it.