Silicon Valley Phone, Internet Outage Raises Security Questions

AT&T has increased its reward to $250,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the culprits.

Antone Gonsalves

April 10, 2009

2 Min Read
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The massive phone and Internet outage in Silicon Valley, apparently caused by vandals cutting underground fiber-optic cables, is raising questions over whether communication systems can be made more secure.

The Thursday outage that started about 1:30 a.m. left hundreds of thousands of people without landline and mobile phone service and Internet access in most of California's Santa Cruz, San Benito, and southern Santa Clara counties. In addition, 911 emergency services in some areas were down, as well as ATMs and scanners for conducting credit card transactions. The communications system wasn't fully restored until almost midnight.

Radio communication between dispatch centers and police and fire departments, ambulance operators, and hospitals was unaffected. Police, fire, and other emergency officials tripled the number of personnel normally in the affected area, so people needing emergency assistance could hopefully flag someone down, said Sgt. Don Morrissey of the Santa Clara County Emergency Operations Center.

Because earthquakes are a threat in California, cities and counties have emergency plans in place for such outages. "We have a plan, we enacted the plan and we were successful," Morrissey told InformationWeek on Friday.

Nevertheless, the incident showed how easily someone can cause such chaos. Vandals opened a manhole cover, descended about 8 feet and cut four or five fiber-optic cables owned by AT&T, first in south San Jose and a couple of hours later in San Carlos, police said.

"It certainly points out a vulnerability," said a spokesman for the San Jose city manager's office.

There are no suspects, but AT&T on Friday increased its reward to $250,000, up from $100,000, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the culprits.

A question that has come up is whether AT&T can do more to back up its network in cases where cables are severed. AT&T leases the cables to Verizon, Nextel, and Sprint, which all suffered outages as a result of the vandalism. AT&T did not respond to an e-mail query.

The Utility Reform Network, a consumer watchdog group in San Francisco, is calling on the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates telephone and power companies, to look at what happened and determine whether AT&T could have done more to prevent the outage.

"AT&T does not lack for money. They are making huge, huge profits in California, and they can afford whatever safety measures are necessary," a TURN spokeswoman said. "The issue here is whether AT&T is doing enough."

Public officials aren't so sure. While politicians in the affected areas are expected to meet with police and emergency officials in the future to discuss prevention, Silicon Valley is no more vulnerable than any other area in the nation. Therefore, the problem is as much national as local.

"We're no different than any other city," the San Jose spokesman said. "The infrastructure and how it's managed is the same."


InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis on the current state of security. Download the report here (registration required).

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