The Unsolved Mystery Attack on Internet Cables in Paris

Jaime E. Love

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Lumen, Zayo, and DE-CIX all say that their services weren’t down or impacted for long and have all been repaired. In many instances, internet traffic was manually or automatically rerouted through other cables. “We had three very difficult hours because a backup link was not active,” Netalis’s Guillaume says. Teams working at Netalis restored connections so most customers experienced a “limited impact,” he says, adding repairs that lasted “several dozen hours” started around 10 hours after the initial incident took place.

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.

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