Lawmakers Question Telecom Grid Security After Paris Attacks

Posted November 18, 2015 at 4:00am

House lawmakers Tuesday expressed concern over the vulnerability of the nation’s communications network in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris on Friday. 

Adding to lawmakers’ worry was a report from the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler who said fiber-optic cables were cut in two places around the country Monday, and he cited a string of fiber cuts in the Bay Area in recent months.

“We need to have some kind of big data capability for determining what has happened to our network,” Wheeler told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology during an oversight hearing of the five-member FCC. “It is not just people getting on the network, but people doing things to the network,” he added.

Ranking committee member Anna G. Eshoo of California said the FBI plans to talk with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence about the fiber-optic cable cuts in her home state over the past year. “I don’t think any of this is coincidental either,” she said.

Securing infrastructure around the country that is used to support communications, especially in an emergency, was a recurring theme at the hearing.

One lawmaker raised the question of exploring how the United States might be able to censor or shut down the online propaganda and messaging being used by the Islamic State. The group claimed responsibility for the shootings and suicide bombings in Paris that killed at least 129 people on Friday.

“I would think that even in an open society when there is a clear threat, they’ve declared war against us and our way of life, they’ve threatened to attack this very city  . . .  that we can do something about the Internet [and] social media side of the equation,” said Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas.

He cited the “terrible attack in Paris” and asked Wheeler if the commission had any authority to counter the Islamic State’s online activities.

“Isn’t there something we can do under existing law to shut those internet sites down?” Barton asked.

Wheeler said he was not sure that the commission’s authority extends to “picking and choosing” what websites can exist.  

The security of the communications network and its key role in public safety also was an issue.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called for studying the mix of public alerts and first-responder communications during an emergency.

Wheeler asked that Congress hold hearings on updating the technology at 911 call centers.

“They risk becoming analog islands in a digital sea,” he said.