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At present, there’s little information about who may have been behind the attacks. No groups or individuals have claimed responsibility for the damage, and French police have not announced any arrests linked to the cuts. Neither the Paris Public Prosecutor’s Office nor Anssi, the French cybersecurity agency, responded to WIRED’s requests for comment.
In June, CyberScoop reported claims that “radical ecologists” who oppose digitalization may be behind the attacks. However, multiple experts speaking to WIRED were skeptical of the suggestion. “It’s quite unlikely,” Combot says. Instead, in many potential sabotage instances he has seen, those who attack telecom infrastructure aim to target cell phone towers where damage is obvious and claim responsibility for their actions.
In France—and more widely around the world—there’s been an increase in attacks against telecom towers in recent years, including cutting cables, setting fire to cell phone towers, and attacking engineers. When the Covid-19 pandemic started in early 2020, there was an uptick in attacks against 5G equipment as conspiracy theorists falsely believed the network standard could be dangerous to people’s health.
While some caution against assuming environmentalist groups were behind the April attacks, there is a precedent for such actions in France: A December 2021 investigation by environmental news outlet Reporterre, as noted by CyberScoop, documented more than 140 attacks against 5G equipment and telecom infrastructure. The attacks were said to show a pattern based on “refusal of a digitized society.”
In one of the other biggest attacks against French networks, more than 100,000 people found themselves struggling to get online in May 2020 after several cables were cut. During the past three months, there have been an estimated 75 attacks against telecom networks in France. The total number of attacks has declined since 2020, however.
Combot says the April attack was one of the “biggest incidents” targeting telecom 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 so, because the internet is locally vulnerable but globally resilient,” Guillaume says.
While cutting cables and setting fire to cell phone towers can cause temporary internet outages or slowdowns, internet traffic can usually be rerouted relatively quickly. In short: It’s very hard to take the internet offline at scale. The internet can largely withstand human sabotage, damage from natural events, and Canadian beavers chomping through cables.
This doesn’t mean threats to connectivity can’t cause widespread disruption. “I fear that these attacks, in France and elsewhere in the world, will happen again,” Combot says. “There are vulnerable points everywhere in the world,” he adds, highlighting Egypt, where subsea cables pass between Europe and Asia. In June the EU published an in-depth review of subsea internet cables that says more should be done to protect them.
DE-CIX’s King says that most incidents around cables are usually accidents, such as damage from roadworks or earthquakes. “The solution is to introduce redundancy in the design of connectivity,” King says. This means having more connections in the internet’s backbone and systems to replace others in case of potential failures or attacks. Every system should have a backup.
Political and technical measures could decrease the chances of attacks on network connections. “The best way to fight against these attacks is to have a better threat intelligence,” says Oxford’s Laudrain. The French Telecoms Federation says it is working more closely with law enforcement to try to stop those who would attack cables. “Some companies publish confidential network information on their websites,” Lumen’s Modlin says. “They should seriously consider removing exact location data, given its sensitive nature.” (She did not name the companies.)
Meanwhile, Guillame says simple physical security measures can be taken, such as ensuring that areas where cables are accessible through the ground are covered by security cameras. Others suggest adding movement sensors to these locations. Preventing internet cables and equipment from damage and destruction is crucial, Guillame says. “Behind the digital economy, there are small businesses, artisans, schools, emergency services hard hit when they can no longer connect their service. It’s not acceptable.”