Currently, there is little information about who may have been behind the attacks. No group or individual has claimed responsibility for the damage, and French police have not announced any arrests related to the cuts. Neither the Paris prosecutor’s office nor Anssi, the French cybersecurity agency, responded to WIRED’s requests for comment.
In June, CyberScoop reported that “radical environmentalists” who oppose digitization may be behind the attacks. However, several experts who spoke to WIRED were skeptical of the suggestion. “It’s quite unlikely,” says Combot. Instead, in many potential sabotage cases he has seen, those attacking telecommunications infrastructure aim to target cell phone towers where the damage is obvious and claim responsibility for their actions.
In France, and more around the world, there has been an increase in attacks on telecommunications towers in recent years, including cutting cables, setting fire to cell phone towers and attacking engineers. When the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020, there was an increase in attacks against 5G equipment, as conspiracy theorists falsely believed that the network standard could be dangerous to the health of people
While some caution to assume that environmental groups were behind the April attacks, there is precedent for such actions in France: a December 2021 investigation by Environmental News. reporter, as CyberScoop noted, documented more than 140 attacks against 5G equipment and telecommunications infrastructure. The attacks were said to show a pattern based on the “denial of a digitized society”.
In one of the other biggest attacks on French networks, more than 100,000 people found themselves struggling to connect in May 2020 after several cables were cut. Over the past three months, there have been around 75 attacks against telecommunications networks in France. However, the total number of attacks has decreased since 2020.
Combot says the April attack was one of the “largest incidents” targeting telecommunications infrastructure in recent years. It also highlights the fragility of local internet cables. “Breaking the Internet is not a good thing for those who have the idea to do it, because the Internet is locally vulnerable but globally resilient,” says Guillaume.
While cutting wires and setting cell towers on fire can cause temporary Internet outages or slowdowns, Internet traffic can usually be rerouted relatively quickly. Bottom line: It’s very difficult to have the internet offline at scale. The Internet can largely withstand human sabotage, damage from natural events, and wire-gnawing Canadian beavers.
That’s not to say that threats to connectivity can’t cause widespread disruption. “I fear that these attacks, in France and elsewhere in the world, will happen again,” says Combot. “There are vulnerable points all over the world,” he adds, highlighting Egypt, where submarine cables run between Europe and Asia. In June, the EU published an in-depth review of submarine internet cables that says more should be done to protect them.
DE-CIX’s King says most incidents around cables are usually accidents, such as damage from roadworks or earthquakes. “The solution is to introduce redundancy into the connectivity design,” says King. This means having more backbone connections and Internet systems to fall back on in case of possible failures or attacks. Every system should have a backup.
Policy and technical measures could decrease the chances of attacks on network connections. “The best way to fight these attacks is to have better threat intelligence,” says Oxford’s Laudrain. The French Telecommunications Federation says it is working more closely with law enforcement to try to stop those who would attack the cables. “Some companies post sensitive network information on their websites,” says Lumen’s Modlin. “They should seriously consider removing exact location data, given its sensitive nature.” (She did not name the companies.)
In the meantime, Guillame says simple physical security measures can be taken, such as ensuring that areas where cables are accessible through the floor are covered by security cameras. Others suggest adding motion sensors to these locations. Guillame says preventing damage and destruction of Internet cables and equipment is crucial. “Behind the digital economy, there are small businesses, craftsmen, schools, emergency services that are very affected when they can no longer connect their service. It’s not acceptable.”