Phone outage exposes critical vulnerabilities

April 10, 2009 6:29:58 PM PDT
The attack on fiber optic cables which brought down landlines, cell phones and Internet service, including emergency 911 services in three Bay Area counties, has exposed critical vulnerabilities in national infrastructures.

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"This should be a wake-up call for counter-terrorism agencies," says former FBI special agent and counter intelligence expert Rick Smith. "What happened yesterday shows just how easy it is for a saboteur to disrupt emergency services."

Smith says if terrorists launched an attack and then sabotaged 911 like they did Thursday, it would be catastrophic.

"Not only would you have the damage caused by the attack, then you can't have the response that's needed," said Smith. "If there were an attack by terrorists which was followed by cutting off telecom lines, just think of what would happen?" added Smith.

Just this week, a former government official said spies hacked into the country's electric grid system.

"Governmental emergency agencies do put in redundancies and backups for 911 systems," says Lou Canton, former director of San Francisco's Office of Emergency Services. "But the system ultimately depends on the private sector companies like AT&T to operate them, so there's only so much government can do."

Canton, who is now an emergency management consultant, adds, "I think the message people need to take away from this is our infrastructure is very vulnerable," said Canton.

After September 11, the government beefed up security in critical areas of the country's infrastructure. Sea marshals began guarding ships, security reached new levels at airports, the National Guard patrolled bridges, and BART added extra cops on trains.

Security experts say while it may be possible to protect critical infrastructure from a terrorist attack, they say the financial costs would be astronomical.

Canton says the way we respond to emergencies is just as important.

"You also have to plan, well what what happens if things do go wrong? How can I quickly react to this and get things back to normal?"

Canton also says protecting infrastructure is often the responsibility of the private sector, not the government.

"Most of the critical infrastructure in the United States is actually in the private sector. So there's very little the government can actually to influence that and to reduce vulnerabilities," he says.

Canton says that is where the weakest link may be.

Reward offered:

AT&T is offering a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of those responsible for the vandalism. Call:

  • 408-277-4161 (San Jose PD)
  • 650--802-4423 (San Carlos PD)
  • 408-947-STOP (Crimestopper)

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