UK Network Infrastructure Attacks: Operators Seek Government Aid

25-03-2024 | By Robin Mitchell

Key Things to Know:

  • Recent surges in attacks on network infrastructure, including undersea cables and domestic fibre networks, pose significant threats to global and local internet connectivity.
  • These attacks not only disrupt essential services but also highlight the vulnerabilities in our digital infrastructure, necessitating a call for enhanced security measures and legal frameworks.
  • Motivations behind such attacks range from political agendas to fear and misunderstanding of technological advancements, underscoring the need for public education on the importance of digital infrastructure.
  • Collaborative efforts between government bodies, network operators, and law enforcement are crucial in developing strategies to mitigate these threats and ensure the resilience of our digital world.

Attacks on undersea cables have dominated the news over the last few weeks, and while such attacks are serious in nature, there are plenty of other attacks that go unnoticed. What challenges do these attacks present to network operators, what is the mindset that drives such attacks, and what can be done to help mitigate against offenders?

What challenges do attacks against infrastructure present to network operators?

As the world becomes increasingly more dependent on technology, attacks against crucial undersea internet links between continents and countries pose serious ramifications. For one, cutting such cables can significantly reduce internet speeds on both sides of the cable, which itself can have major economic ramifications. 

Another ramification of cutting service lines is that communication is hindered, and while other forms of communication do exist, they are unable to handle the amount of traffic that undersea fibre optic installations can. This means that during such an attack, public services need to take priority over all other traffic, which further worsens the situation. 

When recognising the serious nature of cutting these cables, it makes sense that damage to such cables makes the headlines, especially with Russian ships potentially looking for cables in UK waters and Houthi Rebels attacking network infrastructure between Europe and Asia. But while these attacks clearly present a danger to modern society, there are plenty of other attacks that continue to go unnoticed.

Domestic Threats to Network Infrastructure

Recently, alternative network operators have started to call on the UK government to help protect their infrastructure against increasingly violent domestic attacks. Simply put, these operators are finding their infrastructure attacked by local residents, whether it’s through cable cutting or pouring petrol into ducts and lighting them on fire.

The severity of these attacks varies, with some perpetrators resorting to extreme measures such as pouring petrol into ducts and igniting it, causing substantial damage. This not only highlights the physical vulnerabilities of our network infrastructure but also underscores the need for stringent security measures and rapid response strategies to mitigate the impact on services and ensure the resilience of our digital infrastructure. Discover the range of attacks faced by network operators.

While these attacks haven’t managed to cause major outages (due to the small areas covered), they have still been able to deny local users internet access for periods of time while repairs are made. In some cases, repairs are done by replacing individual lines, while others have required entire sections of conduit to be replaced. 

According to the group of operators, the attacks have increased over the past 18 months, and little protection is being offered by local authorities. Furthermore, damage to such infrastructure is not given the same punishment as damage to substations, despite both being equal in importance. Thus, the operators are asking for more severe punishment against those who damage public infrastructure.

In response to the escalating threat, network operators are advocating for a review of the legal framework to ensure that acts of vandalism against telecom infrastructure are met with appropriate legal consequences. This includes considering such acts as distinct criminal offences, which could deter potential offenders through the threat of significant penalties. The collaboration between industry stakeholders and law enforcement is crucial in developing an effective deterrent strategy.

What could be the reasoning behind such attacks?

Historically, people have attacked technology for one of two reasons: a concern over job opportunities and a fear of technology. In the case of job opportunities, such concerns are highly rational and completely understandable, especially when seeing the advances in robotics and AI. But when it comes to fear of technology, trying to reason with those that hold such fears can be extremely challenging, and in some cases, outright impossible. 

Such fears are typically driven by rumours, conspiracy theories, and a general lack of understanding of how technology works. For example, the integration of 5G networks across the UK was faced with a significant amount of resistance, and some of this resistance arose from conspiracies that believed 5G networks were spreading the COVID-19 virus. Others may have believed that these networks are being used to spy on the population or cause cancer due to the use of high-powered antennas and radio frequencies.

Unraveling the Motives Behind Infrastructure Attacks

However, in the case of attacks against fibre optic infrastructure, the rationale is not so clear. Some operators have found that only their cables have been cut, while competitor cables have been left completely alone. Such an attack would indicate that either a customer is severely disgruntled at their service, or worse, could be a competitor trying to affect the service qualities of others. 

Attacks that affect all cables (such as those faced by petrol attacks) are far less likely to be from customers or competitors and more likely from those who resist technology (or at least have concerns with fibre optic systems). But while concerns from 5G are more understandable, as fibre optic systems are entirely self-contained, it can be hard to come to any conclusion as to why someone would attack such infrastructure.

It is possible that the very idea of fibre optic cables is simply too much to bear or that there are those who disagree with the idea of data cables being buried under properties and streets. Furthermore, it is also possible that there are many who are frustrated with the large-scale changes being made to internet infrastructure, which is resulting in substantial road work.

One notable incident that underscores the severity of these attacks involved Ogi's network in Wales, where a targeted attack caused "extensive" damage, disrupting services for many customers. Such deliberate acts of vandalism not only highlight the vulnerabilities of our network infrastructure but also the critical need for enhanced security measures and community awareness to protect these essential assets. Read about the targeted attack on Ogi's network.

What can be done to mitigate against such attacks?

Unfortunately, there is little that can be done against these attacks in the short term, as infrastructure operators have little to no intervention powers. For example, if operators identify an individual cutting cables, they aren’t allowed to apprehend the suspect but instead must rely on reports to local police. 

Installing cameras at key infrastructure sites is certainly an option for discouraging attacks, but considering that the vast majority of fibre optic infrastructure is buried, cameras are simply not an option. It may be possible to utilise low-cost, low-power sensors (such as LoRa) that only send messages upon detecting unauthorised activity. 

The use of stronger conduits and keyed access ports can help prevent the odd passer-by from interfering with cables, but anyone who is motivated enough to damage cables will likely get through most armoured solutions. Furthermore, using lit petrol on such conduits could very well be more than sufficient to damage internal cables through extreme heat.

Strategies for Enhancing Infrastructure Security

The increasing frequency of these attacks calls for a multi-faceted approach to safeguard our digital infrastructure. This includes not only physical security enhancements but also a broader public education campaign to address misconceptions and fears associated with technological advancements. By fostering a better understanding of the importance and safety of digital infrastructure, we can work towards mitigating the root causes of such attacks.

Going forward, there is very little that can be done by infrastructure companies, and it may be up to the government to introduce tougher sentences. Considering that such infrastructure is essential for modern society, it is likely that the population would overwhelmingly support government intervention and harsher sentences, especially if popular streaming services such as Netflix and Prime are inaccessible .

They say that anarchy is only ever nine meals away, but considering how important internet connections are these days, it is also likely that a police state could very well be 3 missed Netflix nights away.  


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.