A telecommunications network in technology-oriented Silicon Valley was taken down Thursday -- and it wasn't the fault of hackers. In a reminder of just how vulnerable infrastructure systems are, vandals with simple cable cutters clipped four fiber-optic lines in the San Jose, Calif., area.
The outage affected landline phones, wireless services, broadband Internet and even ATM machines for tens of thousands of customers in parts of three counties. Emergency 911 services were also affected.
The four cables cut belonged to AT&T, the major carrier in the area, but also affected other carriers like Verizon Wireless who use the cables. Another cable, owned by Sprint Nextel, was also cut, but that outage was brief as the Sprint was able to reroute its traffic.
Services were being restored Thursday afternoon and early Friday. It appears the vandals simply opened manhole covers and cut the inch-thick cables, which AT&T said were protected by tough plastic. AT&T is offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to apprehension of the vandals.
The outage raised questions about how secure the telecommunications network is and comes just days after national security experts warned about malware placed on the U.S. electrical grid, allegedly by hackers from China and Russia. The malware could be activated to disrupt the nation in case of war.
Security experts said the penetration of the electrical grid was not a surprise because of weak security. Phyllis Schneck, vice president of threat intelligence for McAfee, described it as a wake-up call about threats to the nation's public services.
McAfee said critical networks have often had little or no protection other than guards, gates and guns. Such measures can be useless against hackers who penetrate systems over the Internet.
But in the case of Silicon Valley, guards, locks and backup systems might have prevented the telecommunications outages. While Sprint was able to reroute its traffic, AT&T did not have a backup system, which could cost subscribers billions of dollars.