The Mysteries of Fiber Optic Cables That Severed Last Spring Remain Unsolved (And Here’s Why They Should Be Concerned)

On the night of April 27, the internet cables were cut in Paris.

On the night of April 27, the internet cables were cut in Paris.

©BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP

Sabotage

Strategic internet cables were cut on the night of April 27 in the Paris region. This incident disrupted Internet connectivity in many regions of France.

Atlantico: On the night of April 27, several internet cables were cut in Paris. To what extent is this a recurring phenomenon? Does this work in addition? Is it believable to see a militant act ?

Thierry Berthier: Since 2020, acts of sabotage of telecommunications infrastructure, television relay towers, 3G, 4G, or 5G antennas have increased significantly in the national territory. This phenomenon worries the public authorities and obliges them to rethink the security of the sites concerned. No region is spared from these acts of vandalism. A major TV, radio and 3G relay tower, for example, burned down in Limoges in 2021, depriving 1.5 million people of radio and television. The Cars relay fire was admitted the day after the act of sabotage (January 12, 2021) by the “Committee for the abolition of 5G and its world” (CLA5GSM) in an email sent to the daily Le Popular in the Center . “Sabotaging the antenna of the Cars” took place within the framework of the operation “sound of wind and songs of birds”. Several complaints have been filed and the culprits have been identified. The Cars relay attack is an emblematic case because no 5G antenna was present in the burned relay tower… Internet cable cutting operations are also increasing, with an increase in the organization of coordinated actions: the attackers choose their targets and then choose to simultaneously cut Internet cables in several geographic areas to maximize the effects and effects of sabotage. These are more and more often “militant” works organized by activist groups of “degrowthist” ecologists who reject entire sections of technological progress.

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In fact, there are three types of attacks against physical telecom infrastructures (relays, cables):

  • “Crupulous” attacks involving the theft and sale of materials: copper, metal, fiber optics, electrical and radio components.
  • Attacks related to anti-technology, anti 5G, anti-internet activism that can be carried out by radicalized environmental groups, by activists promoting degrowth and digital sobriety. These operations are not always admitted.
  • Attacks, which are more rare, do not fall into the first two categories. These can be full strength tests of a telecom infrastructure or rehearsals before a larger scale coordinated attack. If the cables that were voluntarily cut were submarine cables, it could be a question of a military or state operation.

The sharp increase in sabotage operations carried out by “degrowthist” activist groups should be taken very seriously because of the damage caused.

Does this mean that our infrastructure is, in fact, somewhat at the mercy of saboteurs? Could major disruptions be caused by this kind of relatively “small” scale action?

In a way, yes, these infrastructures are vulnerable because they are easily accessible in boxes buried in the ground. So it’s very easy for an enthusiastic group to go around these boxes to cut the cables. Many TV or telecom relays do not have permanent monitoring. So they are also vulnerable to fire attack.

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We can no longer rule out the hypothesis of a large-scale coordinated attack, mobilizing several groups of activists spread across different regions and targeting major cables. The simultaneous cuts can cause a huge destruction with many side effects and collateral damage. The cost of such a coordinated attack would be difficult to measure. There is no perfect answer to counter this type of attack. We can try harder to open the boxes. They can also be used with intelligent systems to open the identification, but the best method is undoubtedly to identify the top of the flow of groups of saboteurs or their arrest in flagrante delicto.

How weak are we in this area? Can anything be done about this vulnerability?

The hyper-connectivity of systems is our strength and our weaknesses. Our data travels through Internet cables. The online services we use every day rely on physical infrastructure (physical layer #1 of the OSI model):

Securing the physical layer (including cables) remains a complex problem. The security of large transoceanic submarine cables is a major strategic challenge that can be solved using autonomous robotics and underwater surveillance drones. The security of terrestrial cables and Internet backbones is a priority. Consideration of threats will soon rely on autonomous robotic inspection systems that detect attacks and generate alerts. Finally, identifying small groups of activists who are likely to act should be a priority for security forces.

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