By Kevin Poulsen
Jan 19, 2006
At half-past noon on Jan. 9, cable TV contractors sinking a half-mile
of cable near Interstate 10 in rural Arizona pulled up something
unexpected in the bucket of their backhoe: an unmarked fiber-optic
cable. "It started pulling the fiber out of the pipe," says Scott
Johansson, project manager for JK Communications and Construction.
"Obviously, we said, 'Oop, we've hit something.'"
As the fiber came spooling out of the desert soil like a fishing line,
long-distance service for millions of Sprint PCS and Nextel wireless
customers west of the Rockies blinked off. Transcontinental internet
traffic routed over Sprint slowed to a crawl, and some corporations
that relied on the carrier to link office networks found themselves
In the end, a hole dug out of a dirt road outside a town called
Buckeye triggered a three-and-a-half hour outage with national impact.
It wasn't even a very deep hole. "We ran into their line right away,"
Experts say last week's Sprint outage is a reminder that with all the
attention paid to computer viruses and the latest Windows security
holes, the most vulnerable threads in America's critical
infrastructures lie literally beneath our feet.
"No one wants something like this to happen," says Sprint spokesman
John Taylor. "The fact is we are absolutely focused on restoring
service to our customers ... and in this case we did so in record
A study issued last month by the Common Ground Alliance, or CGA -- an
industry group comprised of utilities and construction companies --
calculated that there were more than 675,000 excavation accidents in
2004 in which underground cables or pipelines were damaged. And an
October report from the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry
Solutions found that cable dig-ups were the single most common cause
of telecom outages over a 12-year period ending in 2004, with the
number of incidents dropping in recent years but the severity and
duration of the outages increasing.
In 2004, Department of Homeland Security officials became fearful that
terrorists might start using accidental dig-ups as a road map for
deliberate attacks, and convinced the FCC to begin locking up
previously public data on outages. In a commission filing, DHS argued
successfully that revealing the details of "even a single event may
present a grave risk to the infrastructure."
"We see people talking about the digital Pearl Harbor from the worms
and Trojans and viruses," says Howard Schmidt, former White House
cybersecurity adviser. "But in all probability, there's more
likelihood of what we call the 'backhoe attack' that would have more
impact on a region then a Code Red, or anything we've seen so far."
Sprint claims it's still investigating who was at fault in Buckeye,
but Johansson says that's a settled issue: Before his crew members
disturbed so much as a pebble, they submitted their plans to Arizona's
"call-before-you-dig" One Call center, then waited for each utility to
mark off their buried facilities, if any. Contacted by Wired News, the
center confirmed the call.
According to Johansson, Sprint responded by giving the contractors the
all-clear. "We had a no-conflict ticket from them, indicating that
they had no line there," he says.
Even that apparent gaffe wouldn't have been enough to cause an outage
on its own. The Arizona fiber cut was on a transmission line that
loops across the county in a solid ring -- a "self-healing" topology
that guarantees a single break won't stop service, because traffic can
always circle back in the other direction.
But a few days earlier, another section of the same line buried in a
railroad culvert near Reno Junction, California, suffered damage in a
stormy mudslide. Sprint workers had to cut the waterlogged section of
cable to make repairs. So when the contractor's backhoe ripped up the
cable in Buckeye, the two cuts together effectively sawed off the
entire westernmost section of the ring.
But that conspiracy of bad timing and wet weather pales against the
impact that deliberate saboteurs or terrorists could make with some
rented backhoes and careful target selection.
In 2003, then-Ph.D. candidate Sean Gorman famously mapped America's
fiber-optic paths for his dissertation at George Mason University, and
found it was easy to locate critical choke points from public records
and data. Today, Gorman serves as CTO of FortiusOne, a startup that's
helping financial companies diversify their electronic
infrastructures, and consulting with the DHS. He says the
"We've looked at scenarios where we (could) have multiple fiber cuts
that effectively disconnect the West Coast from the East Coast," says
Gorman. "It's not very difficult to figure out."
Gorman blames this fragility in large part on the recent spate of
telecom mergers and acquisitions -- with each one, he says, more and
more of the nation's critical communications merge into fewer and
fewer fiber-optic cables. Witness the Sprint outage, which affected
customers of Nextel, which Sprint finished acquiring last month.
Meanwhile, carriers don't want to spend the money to run redundant
fiber-optic lines. A 2003 research paper (.pdf) from Sprint notes the
company sought alternatives to "physically diverse protection paths"
for its backbone network after confronting the "substantial capital
investment" of running new cables, as well as challenges posed by
geographic obstacles like mountains and bridges.
Those geographic limitations have spawned another dangerous trend,
says Gorman: Different companies tend to install their cables
alongside the same limited number of roads and railways, often
unknowingly. "The vast majority of providers are on just two routes"
across the country, he says. (Presumably, one of them runs under
If there's widespread agreement on the danger, there's less of a
consensus on the solution. Gorman argues that regulators should start
taking into account the effect on national security when considering
proposals to merge telecoms. "How many fiber paths are they planning
on collapsing? How much diversity is the nation losing in the process?
It's probably something that should be examined," he says.
But former White House cybersecurity adviser Schmidt disagrees. "We
built the infrastructure using facilities that were already there,
because they were most effective," he says. "You have physical
limitations, like bridging the Mississippi River.... Can you imagine
they tell you tomorrow, 'We have to build redundancy in the system, so
we're going to double your phone bill?'"
Instead, Schmidt would like to see the government fund more research
into network survivability. "Let's look at the R&D, let's start
building this stuff so you can have alternative means of
communications -- wireless, satellite. Because you're never going to
be able to have 100 percent redundancy."
For its part, Sprint insists that its network is diverse enough. "We
do put a premium on redundancy," says Taylor. "In this particular case
we had events simultaneously happen that are beyond our control."
In the end, there's no simple way to prevent sabotage to critical
communications lines, should the United States' enemies ever decide on
that tact. So far, they haven't.
But progress is being made on curtailing accidental damage, in
particular by bolstering the system of regional One Call centers
dedicated to preventing incidents like the Sprint outage, and the
sometimes-fatal accidents that occur when an excavator digs into a
buried natural gas or petroleum pipeline.
Under state laws, anyone who's breaking ground generally needs to
contact the local One Call center first. The center then sends out
notices to all the utilities in the area, which are obliged to
respond, generally within two days. If anything is buried in the dig
zone, the utility dispatches a worker to mark off the location,
usually by spray painting a kind of infrastructure hobo's code on the
ground: A red line indicates buried cable, yellow is a gas pipe, green
a sewer line, etc. Any digging conducted close to the marked
facilities has to be conducted by hand, or using special equipment
like a vacuum pump.
The December CGA report -- the first comprehensive look at digging
accidents -- found that nearly half of the 675,000 incidents in 2004
resulted from the excavator failing to contact the local One Call
center. The most common facilities damaged as a result were gas
pipelines, representing 51.6 percent of the damage. Telecommunications
facilities came in second at 27.5 percent. Backhoes, trenchers and
shovels tended to hit gas lines, while augers, borers and drills had
it in for telecom cables.
Most of the incidents only affect local facilities -- it takes bad
luck to hit a major communications artery or pipeline. "But when
they're hit, the damage is significant," says CGA executive director
Bob Kipp. In one of the 2004 incidents, a construction crew in Walnut
Creek, California, struck a buried petroleum pipeline, sparking an
explosion that killed three people and injured six others.
But utilities are hopeful for change. In 2002, Congress passed, and
President Bush signed, a law mandating the creation of a national
call-before-you-dig three-digit phone number that, like 911, would
route automatically to the caller's local center.
Last year the FCC decided on 811 as the magic number, and the CGA says
it's on the verge of selecting a marketing firm to design a national
Smokey the Bear-style campaign to promote the code when it goes live
on April 10, 2007.
"So instead of having 50 state campaigns with 50 different numbers,
we'll get one campaign with one easily recognizable number," says
Kipp. "If dad's going to go in the backyard and plant a tree, the kid
may say, 'Dad, if you're going to dig, you might blow up something, or
we might be without phone service.'"
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