Friday, April 10, 2009


Signs direct potential terrorists to sensitive high-capacity communication cables

by Larry Geller

You’ve probably seen the signs, as mentioned in this article from today’s San Francisco Mercury News, AT&T boosts reward to $250K in phone service sabotage:

Crews in South San Jose spent Thursday fusing four separate cable lines back together, some working eight feet deep in a manhole at Monterey Highway and Blossom Hill Road and others working with the pulled slack above ground, a few feet from a sign that said in red letters, "Warning: Buried Fiber Optic Cable in This Vicinity. Call Before You Dig." Nearby, authorities later discovered more cut cable lines at Hayes Avenue and Cottle Road, which affected several hundred customers in the Hellyer, Silver Creek Valley and Tures neighborhoods.

The paradox is that those signs, intended to be protective, direct vandals, criminals or terrorists to the location of those cables.

We live in strange times. Who would have thought, when the signs were put up on streets and even in people’s yards sometimes, that cutting cables would be a weakness, a chink in the armor, an Achilles heel?

There could be copycat incidents, but I’ll bet there is panic in local, state and federal government. If not, there should be.

The signs on the street may just identify a local cable. Only amateurs would cut at random. The pros will get—or squeeze—information from communications workers on the location of the cables that really matter.

What can be done? Well, one thing would be to reclaim the idea of redundancy. If a communications center is served by feeds from the east, it should also be served from the west. Like that.

Also, the system must react very swiftly to report an interruption. If someone was working eight feed down in a manhole cutting cables, the cops should have been up top with flashlights pretty quickly. The cable is very thick and took time to cut, yet clearly no one responded in the time necessary to catch the perpetrators. Whether alarm bells rang or not, I cannot say (and maybe it wasn’t possible to call a cop, since the lines were down!). Maybe putting alarm switches on manhole covers would do the trick.

Four locations at once was probably an experiment. This was not a simple crime of vandalism, it appears to be a well-planned attack. It succeeded. I suggest we need to pay attention.


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