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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 amount of people, but no one previously 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.

AT&T is in contract negotiations with employees on in its landline business, which maintains the fiber-optic cables, and is seeking substantial concessions on health care costs, among other things. The union denied any involvement and said it would cooperate with investigators.

“We didn’t do it,” said Libby Sayre, area director for the California chapter of the Communications Workers of America, the union in negotiations with AT&T. “It’s not completely inexplicable why people would be inclined to speculate. But we never condone any kind of vandalism.”

The severed fiber ran in underground conduits about 10 feet below ground level. In other places, optical fiber runs in pipes just under the ground, or in railway embankments.

Telecom carriers could increase security in their conduits, or build more lines to provide more backups. But both solutions are expensive, White said, and the costs would be passed on to customers. His institute helps municipalities figure out threats to infrastructure and prepare appropriately.

Computer security expert Bruce Schneier said the incident shouldn’t raise fears of repeat episodes. He said the vandalism was the exception that proved the rule: Telecom sabotage is not easy.

“The fact that none of us can remember this happening before shows how difficult this is,” he said.

“An idiot with a backhoe” accidentally cutting a line while digging is a much more common threat than a miscreant opening a manhole, Schneier said. More common still is a windblown tree falling on a utility line. Winter storms on the northern plains regularly take out communications for hundreds of communities.

“Before you lock up your manholes, you should support your trees,” Schneier said.


Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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