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[] NYT 23.11.01: Attacks at Hubs Could Disrupt Phone Lines,

November 23, 2001
Attacks at Hubs Could Disrupt Phone Lines

Public safety experts and telecommunications executives are growing increasingly concerned about the possibility of attacks on the telephone system, a century-old network of copper wires and newer fiber optic strands that wind their way through critical but vulnerable hubs.

Most of the concern involves the prospect of physical attacks on the 100 or so most important central offices that route voice calls and Internet traffic. Service for more than 30 million phone lines in the largest cities could be interrupted if such attacks were successful.

Another important concern focuses on cyberattacks that could shut down parts of the public telephone system. And some information warfare experts worry as well about the development of weapons that disrupt communications networks with electromagnetic bursts.

The threats, like those that could take aim at the central office buildings found in every big city, are so obvious that some government officials and phone company executives hesitate to talk about them publicly. Other experts, however, say it is necessary to discuss the issue ? but without providing saboteurs a map of where such facilities are.

"We gain nothing by underestimating the sophistication of the bad guys, who are certainly already thinking about these things," said John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "By not talking about such a threat, we're giving them more running room."

The worries about the phone network's exposure to saboteurs have grown since Sept. 11, when the collapse of the World Trade Center caused nearby switching operations in one of the nation's busiest central offices to shut down temporarily.

Verizon Communications, which owns the central office at 140 West Street, said the disruption affected a customer base about the size of Cincinnati, with 300,000 phone lines.

Since then, Verizon has returned service to almost all the customers served by the office, but doubts about the wider network's vulnerability have persisted. The damage done to New York's phone network could have been far worse if more important central offices in Manhattan had been damaged in the attacks.

"The definition of acceptable risk has dramatically changed," said Joseph P. Nacchio, chief executive of Qwest Communications, which provides local and long-distance telephone service. 

Carriers like Qwest, which is based in Denver and has extensive operations in the West, and Verizon, the largest phone company on the East Coast, are increasing the number of guards and screening visitors with greater care at busy work sites.

Large telephone companies have also briefed federal officials and member of Congress on threats to the network. But aside from these initial moves, it is not clear what detailed plans, if any, are being considered to protect key parts of the phone network.

The National Communications System, a White House-level organization that coordinates telecommunications preparedness, declined to elaborate on the matter. "As a matter of national security, the N.C.S. does not openly discuss vulnerabilities of networks that may pose a security threat to the nation," said Stephen Barrett, a spokesman.

In fact, it is well known that the phone system's evolution into a network that depends on key routing sites nationwide make changes difficult and expensive. The N.C.S. reported last year that "there is an increasing likelihood that portions of the telecommunications infrastructure may be inappropriately or inadequately secured."

Much of the network's vulnerability has to do with its relative openness, which increased over the last decade as the government required large companies to open their systems to competitors. The N.C.S. cited the increase in the number of companies that provide telecommunications services as one of the main reasons the public telephone network is less secure over all.

To the chagrin of some start-up companies, large local phone companies recently echoed the N.C.S.'s concern. The most vocal of these companies has been Verizon, formed last year by Bell Atlantic's acquisition of the GTE Corporation. In addition to concern about cyberthreats that could be carried out by hackers using a competitor's access to its network, Verizon is worried that saboteurs masquerading as technicians from a competing company could gain access to and damage a large central office.

The organization of the nation's telephone system lends itself to such vulnerability. As the industry was deregulated over the last decade and a half, companies made many changes, like the conversion from analog to digital switching.

But the basic architecture of the system on the local level has hardly changed. Most voice and data traffic is still channeled through central offices, the buildings where copper and fiber-optic cables connect to the rest of the network through bulky switches and data circuits. Many of these buildings were designed to withstand natural disasters like tornadoes or hurricanes. During the cold war, they served as bomb shelters. They were built to be as anonymous as possible, with ample use of concrete and few windows.

Still, few of these structures were built to withstand bombs placed within their premises, where switching equipment is placed within cages or is left in areas open to employees and visiting technicians. A well- placed explosion inside a central office could cripple the service of nearly all of its customers.

Shifting away from a system dependent on central offices would be much more difficult than building greater redundancy into the telephone network, experts say, because it is technically complicated to channel traffic through remote and secure sites that are far removed from busy urban centers. It would also be extremely expensive to build a backup network of central offices, said Scott Heinlein, senior analyst with TeleChoice, a telecommunications consulting company.

"A move toward more decentralization is key, but it's something that will probably happen slowly," said A. Michael Noll of the University of Southern California, an expert on the safety of telecommunications networks.

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