Our fancy Internet infrastructure operates on a wire and a prayer

Our fancy Internet infrastructure operates on a wire and a prayer

Summary: The fiber-optic outage---actually sabotage---in the Bay Area on Thursday reveals a dirty little secret: Our infrastructure is ridiculously vulnerable and it only takes a few vandals (or terrorists) to bring communication to its knees. While it's unclear what exactly happened, AT&T is offering a $100,000 now $250,000 reward to find the vandals that cut into fiber optic wires and whacked everything from hosting centers---including a few of our own---911 calls and other communication (Techmeme).

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TOPICS: Networking, Telcos
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The fiber-optic outage---actually sabotage---in the Bay Area on Thursday reveals a dirty little secret: Our infrastructure is ridiculously vulnerable and it only takes a few vandals (or terrorists) to bring communication to its knees. 

While it's unclear what exactly happened, AT&T is offering a $100,000 now $250,000 reward to find the vandals that cut into fiber optic wires and whacked everything from hosting centers---including a few of our own---911 calls and other communication (Techmeme). Sam said it best: No matter how advanced we get we're still hooked up to a big wire somewhere

That's not going to change. The big question: How are we going to protect those big wires?

Barrett Lyon asks whether it's possible to destroy the network with a hacksaw. In a word: Yup. It happened yesterday. AT&T used Twitter---home of the Fail Whale---to communicate with customers. Anyone see the irony in that one?

What's truly scary is that we're not just talking about the Internet here. The electric grid is vulnerable. Our transportation grid is vulnerable. Our infrastructure in the U.S. is a big sitting duck. The grid and the Internet are top of mind today, but I'm reminded of the overall infrastructure vulnerability every trip into Penn Station. Every once in a while you'll see heavily armed police with their K-9 dogs in Penn Station's lobby. It's a common sight. However, if you really wanted to bring down the train station and subway it's nothing a stray backpack couldn't take care of.

Simply put, it's impossible to completely secure all of the infrastructure out there. And everyone knows it. In 2003, a student dissertation raised national security concerns. It's not rocket science to map infrastructure and cook up scenarios.  

So what can we do?

Surely, it makes no sense to put armed guards at every manhole cover, fiber optic hub, power line and transportation grid. However, there may be a few things we can do:

  • Seal the manholes: It's relatively easy to pop one and clip a line or two.
  • Smart sensors: Is there the equivalent of a car alarm for fiber optic lines?
  • Better surveillance: Critical national infrastructure---like the places the AT&T fiber optic lines were cut---mostly resides in private hands. Is there a way to hook these areas up into a national security monitoring network?
  • Improved fail-over processes. Sure, the Internet is set up to reroute traffic, but it's not perfect. Can we build in more resiliency? 

There is a big plan from the Department of Homeland Security about protecting national infrastructure. The 188 page tome can be boiled down to this graphic. 
In the end, I'm not hopeful that any of these infrastructure assets can be secured because there's a real herding cats problem among all the vested parties. And that fact casts a pall over some of our grand tech visions.

Topics: Networking, Telcos

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237 comments
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  • You're missing the point

    We should not permit single point of failure networks to be built.

    Besides, there's over 80 million miles of fiber in the U.S. alone, and it simply is not possible to monitor all that cable, or even the main lines. It's just not possible. Failover and redundancy are the solutions, not some fantastic surveillance network.

    We have simply become too used to our super reliable routers and fiber cables. Gone are the days when down links were routine, failover was required and that has created a false sense of complacency.
    Takalok
    • Missing the Point

      You are absolutely on target. Redundancy is the solution both from a vandal/terrorist standpont, but also natural disasters. No one point of attack or failure should be able to bring down a major portion of the national network.
      Olivetti Underwood
    • No, I didn't miss the point

      First I stated that there is monitoring. Most telecos have monitoring. I
      didn't state there should be a super monitoring network.

      I clearly stated that it is more profitable for the customer to pay for
      redundancy than a teleco. You missed the point. Profit.
      kd5jos
      • The "big question"

        You thesis, posed as a question, was "how do we protect those big wires." Focusing your column on "protecting" those big wires is off the mark. You can't protect those cables. It's not possible.

        Sealing manholes is ridiculous. Fiber shares space with many, many utilities.

        And what good is "monitoring" (aside from at the router)? Monitor with what? Motion detectors? Surveillance cameras? Many fiber links are 20 or more miles long!

        The "point" of your article, as I read it, is to "raise concern" at the "vulnerability" of modern day telecom. Well, yes, it's vulnerable and aside from dispersal, there's now way to "protect" it.

        You can't punch water. If ZD net doesn't want to specify uptime and failover in their service contracts (and pay the higher price, of course) then it shouldn't be stunned and amazed when there are outages.

        So make a choice. Accept and pay for single point of failure networks, or demand and pay for redundant high-uptime connections. It's a business decision for ZDnet and others to make.
        Takalok
        • The Big Quesion (about Manholes)

          is that they are used by a number of services.
          If they are sealed , the repair man/person will need the security service to unseal them I assume.

          Bit stupid , you will have a lot of non functioning services with the workers waiting to get officially sanctioned access.

          Anyway I believe that screaming feminists have got them renamed Person Access Holes.

          elderlybloke
    • Security is an illusion...

      if one uses the common assumption that if something or someone is "secure", nothing bad can happen. From this perspective, one could say that there is no security, only risk management. In this case, redundant networks and fault-tolerant systems, terminals and users significantly reduce the problems resulting from the risks, but *the risks do not go away*. For those interested in reading about security issues, Bruce Schneier's Cryptogram is well-worth reading: http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram.html
      Dave S2
    • Maybe that's all USA can afford

      Time to let go the mentality "oh I deserve it so make it happen". If people are to learn anything from this Depression 2.0, it's that they will have to live within their means. If you think Americans are exempted from that rule, you are simply fooling yourself.
      LBiege
    • Your'e miising what point?

      Just who are we? The point is the network is already built. While redundancy should be built, in the meantime the primary network must be protected. In either event it's going to cost money. Who's going to pay, the government again?

      Considering that we're seeing anarchists in Europe trying to bring about chaos, just maybe it the saboteurs were dealt with extreme prejudice it might deter others. Oh, I forget, that would be politically incorrect.
      Recce1
  • phone skills, pen and paper

    still very necessary
    don't have a heart attack if your email goes down for the afternoon
    the internet is only a tool
    come up with a contingency plan and keep on working
    zmud
    • For Some of Us

      When your work is programming on a remote system and the Internet connection goes down, you can't do mainframe programming with a phone, pen, & paper.
      jsanko
    • Phone skills?

      The phone system in the affected area went out also.
      raelalt
      • Exactly...

        So what now zmud??? 2 cans and a string???

        Effin Brainiac.... Time to work on that reading comprehension dude.
        i8thecat
    • True

      Our schools however don't even wish to teach cursive handwriting anymore. let alone the fact our current administration doesn't want you knowing anything about economics or balancing the books. (yes neither did George Bush. I know already!!)
      partman1969
      • Printing, cursive, keyboarding

        Which one is hardest to read? Get rid of it.
        deowll
        • Printing,Cursive, and Keyboarding

          I merely stated that some retro methods should be taught and maintained in curriculum even before technology. In the event of a catastrophe handwritten technology will be a neccessity as will reading and writing and math. By your logic we should have the Constitution printed in abbreviated text or webdings so that todays youth can understand it.
          partman1969
      • Cursive Writing

        Is that for cursing in print? JK
        Cursive writing is really unnecessary. Who writes anymore other than to sign their name. Most people write letters using a word processor.
        jsanko
        • Cursive Writing, Printing, Whatever

          Have you all forgot that in the event of broken infrastructure computers, cellphones, 2ways, CBs and any other shiny object with electricity may not work? Pony express again but nobody can use a pencil or slide rule because the three Rs and yes even cursive disappeared. Interesting Huh?
          partman1969
          • John Ringo wrote a book about that.

            Called "There will be dragons"
            I pretty good view of what happens when people forget how to live without "the net"
            914four
        • Cursive writing

          Let's stop teaching math, too! We all have calculators on our phones.
          And forget teaching how to read, we have videos!
          Cursive teaches the brain the ability to get a thought, hold onto it until you can express it as well as fine motor control skills. Without cursive, what will schools substitute to teach these brain skills? Or will they just skip teaching.



          pickespu
          • Whatever they use...

            I can only hope that it works better for the next generation than learning cursive did for yours.

            PROTIP: There's another style of handwriting out there that's easy to read, easy to learn, and easy to write--yet no less 'expressive' than any other system of writing in English. It's called "print". They teach it in kindergarten.

            And...honestly, what kind of nonsense is this? "Cursive teaches you how to get an idea"? Really? Is that why so many Asian countries, many of which only have one way of writing their language, are doing better than the United States economically? Because they, having never learned cursive, -don't- know how to get an idea?

            And this idea that people don't know how to write in cursive because they were never taught is also utterly absurd. If anybody doesn't know, it's because -he/she never needed it- after being taught in second grade. Even for signatures, it's unnecessary--because all a good signature truly requires is that it be illegible and distinct in style from others' signatures. You can make print arbitrarily illegible. I've never seen anybody who could make script thusly legible.

            Forcing children to learn cursive handwriting is as useless, anachronistic, and obsolete as circumcision. Let's be practical here--it's nothing more than a dinosaur, aesthetics be damned.
            SFalchionRomantic