Major fiber optic cables were severed in the Ile-de-France and the Meuse during the night from Tuesday April 26th to Wednesday April 27th, causing internet access disruptions in several regions and major cities including Grenoble, Besançon, Reims and Strasbourg. At the end of the day, Wednesday, the Zone ADSL site had detected 9,741 outages in fixed-line Internet in France, which mainly bothered the customers of the operator Free – less than 1% of its users according to its own data – and to a lesser extent SFR measure. Most of these problems were resolved by morning. So more fear than damage thanks to the diversion of traffic to secondary roads, i.e. redundancy.
Nevertheless, the incident is taken very seriously by the authorities. An investigation by the cyber department of the Paris public prosecutor’s office was opened on Wednesday evening for “deterioration of property likely to harm the fundamental interests of the nation”, “obstructing an automated data processing system” and “criminal organization”. Attempts to sabotage the Internet, while not uncommon, have never been so sophisticated. Explanations.
- A “change of scale” in sabotage
Fires or damage observed on relay antennas have been commonplace for more than a decade with the advent of 5G antennas. In March and May 2020, two cases of cutting of telecommunications cables were also observed in Val-de-Marne. It should be noted that damage regularly occurs during the works, this time accidentally.
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However, according to many experts in the industry, a simultaneous attack on several large websites on the network is unprecedented. The general director of the French Telecommunications Federation (FFT), Michel Combot, therefore regrets to L’Express a “scale change” in the attempts to sabotage the Internet network. “We were previously involved in isolated and, above all, very visible actions. We touched some kind of symbol, for example by burning down a pylon. This is a prepared operation, on a different scale.”
The professional operator Netalis meanwhile spoke on its side of a “first operation in seven years” and announced the filing of a lawsuit. Its CEO, Nicolas Guillaume, comments to L’Express: “The people who committed these acts knew what, where and how to cut.
“There are many fiber optic infrastructures. Here the authors have specifically targeted very distant links connecting Paris to Strasbourg, Paris to Lyon or even Paris to Lille, the locations of which are not public,” says Vivien Guéant, Administrator of the Forum lafibre.info section. According to Michel Combot, possible “complices” within organizations that have access to information cannot be ruled out – especially among operators – but “only the investigation will be able to confirm this,” he cautions.
“This happens when an operator wants to ensure that the two routes available to him go through two very different places: if one is down, the other is still working. To do this, he needs the two exact routes of the cables,” explains Vivien Guéant.
- The motives of the perpetrators remain unknown
The other cause for concern is the mystery surrounding the motives of the perpetrators. To date, no group has claimed this law. The blur is total. “We still don’t know whether it’s the cable or an operator that was targeted,” said the director general of the FFT. Also, the lead leading to a premeditated act against Free, who is most concerned on Wednesday, also seems unlikely.
The determination of the authors is beyond doubt. Check out the images posted on the Free network’s official account on Twitter and the “clean” cut of the thick fiber optic cables.
- Cable difficult to attach
Finally, a recurrence cannot be ruled out. Indeed, monitoring “tens of thousands of kilometers of cable” is now very difficult, observes Michel Combot, who also believes that “over-security could be counterproductive, and ultimately draw attention to these bedrooms [NDLR : endroits qui accueillent les câbles]that are already said to be hidden and difficult to access, along highways or railways”. However, there are several techniques. “For sensitive sites where copper thefts regularly take place, silting is carried out”, notes Vivien Guéant, adding clean-up operations before any technician intervention.
The good old methods remain. “It is obviously impossible to monitor these cables, especially in the heart of rural areas. We must therefore remain vigilant, always noticing signs that are sometimes harmless (equipped trucks, people working in the middle of the night in unusual places, etc.) and prevent the police or gendarmerie by calling 112,” Netalis’ Nicolas Guillaume believes .
Once again, the FFT is dubious. “Not all municipalities play along. Sometimes the gathering of evidence takes several weeks,” says the director general. The federal government therefore prefers to use deterrence. “We reiterate our call to the future government to step up the fight against and prevention of these acts of vandalism, and we call for tougher criminal sanctions against their perpetrators,” Arthur Dreyfuss, president of the French Telecom Federation, said in a press release on Wednesday. who said he “had been alerting authorities to the resurgence of malicious activity for many months [leurs] infrastructure”, including “relay antennas”.
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“We would like the penalty for damage to these infrastructures to be more dissuasive, ranging from 2 to 5 years in prison,” adds Michel Combot. “You have to understand that this has an impact on the economic life of many citizens,” he explains. Rest assured: the penalty for an “attack on the fundamental interests of the nation” – which the Paris public prosecutor’s office is recording in their investigation – is itself punishable by fifteen to twenty years in prison.
A column by Emmanuelle Mignon