Forget, for a moment, computer viruses and sophisticated cybercrimes. A hacksaw and a few other tools were probably all it took for someone to sever eight fiber-optic cables in Silicon Valley this week, knocking out cellphone, landline and Internet service.
The attack was a reminder of the fragility of the telecommunications networks that are increasingly important in our lives. Yet physical sabotage of the networks is extremely rare and far overshadowed by natural disasters like hurricanes. Security experts were unable to recall a similar incident.
Cables were cut early on Thursday in San Jose and nearby San Carlos, wiping out telecom service to tens of thousands of homes and businesses. Some people were still able to place local calls, but emergency call service disappeared.
A woman in Gilroy was forced to flee her home during a robbery because she couldn’t call police. She rushed to a nearby firehouse to report the crime, city spokesman Joe Kline said.
Services returned later on Thursday as repairs progressed.
Police in San Jose have received leads from potential witnesses, Sergeant Ronnie Lopez said, and FBI spokesman Brian Hale said the incident had no connection to terrorism. He did not elaborate on how that determination had been made.
Lopez said that whoever cut the cables knew how to use the proper tools to remove a heavy manhole cover and slice through the thick cables, which are protected by a heavy plastic sheath.
Still, it wasn’t clearly an inside job. In San Carlos, where four fiber-optic cables were severed, Police Commander Rich Cinfio cautioned people not to conclude that the crime required detailed knowledge of the system’s workings.
“You can get the tools needed to do this at any local hardware store,” Cinfio said.
AT&T Inc, which owns six of the severed cables, posted a US$100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, then raised that to US$250,000 on Friday “as the full scope of the vandalism became more clear.”
Sprint Nextel Corp said one of its cables, which provided Internet access for large business customers, was cut, too. Sprint was able to reroute traffic over other lines within a few hours of the cut, spokeswoman Crystal Davis said.
Phone and Internet service from Verizon Communications Inc was also disrupted for about 50,000 households, since the company uses AT&T’s “long-haul” telecommunications lines in the area.
Santa Clara County spokeswoman Joy Alexiou said the sheriff’s department doubled patrols in areas where people’s phone service was out. County workers went door-to-door checking on vulnerable people like seniors and the disabled.
Internet sabotage for the purpose of extortion or to silence an opponent’s Web site is common, but the tools are usually software, not from a hardware store. Thieves sometimes target phone and power lines because the copper has scrap value, but that isn’t true of optical fiber.
Greg White, director of the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security at the University of San Antonio, said the location of the telecom cables is known to a fair number of people, but, until now, no one had shown much interest in cutting them.
“Well, now we see that not only is it possible, at least one individual has done it,” he said.
Disgruntled employees and pranksters could have motives for attacks like this one, White said.