FBI Hunts SF Bay Area Fiber-Optic Cable Cutters

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation for the past year has been on the hunt for people slashing fiber-optic cables throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

The FBI called for the public’s assistance in June, after 10 attacks had taken place. The 11th occurred on Tuesday, when someone severed cables used by Wave Broadband.

Tuesday’s attack knocked out service to customers in Alameda County, Sacramento and the San Francisco area, said FBI special agent Greg Wuthrich.

“We have been in consultation with the FBI, but because of the nature of the ongoing investigation, I can’t comment further,” said Wave Broadband spokesperson Mark Petersen.

The Internet Haters

Fiber-optic cables have been severed in different cities in the Bay Area — Berkeley, Fremont, Walnut Creek, San Jose and Alamo.

Fremont was hit five times and Walnut Creek twice.

The attackers might have been disguised as telecommunications maintenance workers, or have tools such workers would use, according to the FBI.

There is no indication that these incidents have any connection with the sniper attack on a PG&E substation in Metcalf back in 2013, the FBI said. Suspicions that it was a terrorist attack were raised, but the FBI ruled out terrorism.

The Metcalf station was hit again in 2014.

The FBI stepped in to investigate the fiber-optic cable cuts because the investigations took local law enforcement agencies out of their jurisdiction, agent Wuthrich told TechNewsWorld. The bureau is working with local law enforcement.

Cable-Cutting and Its Implications

It’s easy to sever cables, noted Rob Enderle, principal at the Enderle Group.

Fiber-optic cables “often go through conduits and aggregate in vaults which aren’t that hard to open,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Then they can be cut with any simple cutting tool — even a knife.”

It’s possible to launch coordinated attacks on fiber-optic cables, requiring only some research, planning and coordination, Enderle said.

The attackers also could sever cables elsewhere while the first ones cut were being replaced, which would leave an area dark “nearly indefinitely, with the right level of effort and focus,” Enderle suggested. However, the risk of getting caught would go up significantly.

Repairing a damaged fiber-optic cable is very difficult. Splicing optical cable is “a unique skill, and each fiber has to be matched to its twin, then spliced so that the light quality isn’t degraded,” Enderle explained. There may be thousands of fibers in one cable.

What Happened on Tuesday

Wave Broadband customers in Sacramento and Rocklin lost phone, TV and Internet services because the fibers provided by company partners Zayo and Level 3 were cut.

Wave owns most of its fiber, but it also leases some fiber, the company’s Petersen said.

Wave initially described the attacks as coordinated, but “despite the impact to customers in a variety of areas, [the attack] was confined to a single geographic location,” the FBI’s Wuthrich said, and it wasn’t coordinated. It matches the earlier attacks throughout the Bay area.

Red flags went up at Wave because multiple attacks occurred in the same time frame, Petersen said.

Protecting Against Coordinated Attacks

Given that the United States is going digital, attacks on fiber-optic cable could damage the economy as a whole, over and above their impact on essential services and the disruption they cause in people’s daily lives.

It is possible to defend against coordinated attacks by significantly increasing redundancy, Enderle said.

“You have to make the effort too costly and difficult to execute broadly, and move to a technology — such as wireless — that wouldn’t be exposed to this kind of physical attack,” he suggested.

There are five major sources of cable disruption according to Norscan, which provides cable monitoring services.

Construction is the worst — 30,000 Comcast customers lost service for most of the day after a construction crew cut a fiber-optic trunk line in Seattle last month.

The others are water, lightning strikes, rodents and ice crush.

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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