Feds investigating whether major cell phone outage was cyberattack

by WorldTribune Staff, February 22, 2024

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), among other agencies, are reportedly investigating to determine whether a major nationwide cell phone outage on Thursday is the result of a cyberattack.

In the early morning hours on Thursday, more than 73,000 AT&T customers reported outages on digital-service tracking site DownDetector, which tracks only self-reported outages. Although outage reports fell a bit in the 5 am ET hour, they bounced back in the 7 am ET hour.

Outage map as of 10 a.m. ET on Feb. 22 / Downdetector

Cricket Wireless which is owned by AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, UScellular, and Boost customers also reported problems.

As of 5 a.m. ET, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) reported, according to a confidential memo obtained by ABC News, that “the cause of the outage is unknown and there are no indications of malicious activity.” CISA is an agency within DHS tasked with monitoring cyber threats.

When contacted later, however, CISA said it had no comment.

A telecommunications specialist who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media told WorldTribune.com his sources agreed that the outage appeared to be the result of a network or cyber attack.

Ryan French, a solar physicist at the National Solar Observatory, said on X: “Some people are attributing cell network outages (AT&T, Verizon) in the U.S. to last night’s X-class solar flare.”

However, he noted, “the two incidents occurring at the same time is merely coincidence.”

By mid-morning, AT&T posted an update to their site saying most users had their service restored: “Some of our customers are experiencing wireless service interruptions this morning. Our network teams took immediate action and so far three-quarters of our network has been restored. We are working as quickly as possible to restore service to remaining customers.”

Several local governments said AT&T’s outage was disrupting services.

San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management said in a statement on X Thursday morning that its 911 center remained operational, but many AT&T customers were unable to reach the emergency line because of the outage. It suggested people call from a landline or find someone with a rival’s service to dial 911.

Several police departments and municipalities warned local residents Thursday morning of what they described as a nationwide outage. Officials urged callers to contact emergency services by alternative means.

“There is a nationwide AT&T outage that is preventing wireless customers from making and receiving any phone calls (including to 9-1-1),” the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which serves the Charlotte, North Carolina area, said in a post on X.

The county government in Fairfax, Virginia released a similar warning on X: “There is a nationwide AT&T outage that is preventing wireless customers from making and receiving any phone calls (including to 9-1-1). Try calling from a landline or ask a friend or family member to call 9-1-1 on your behalf.”

Verizon and T-Mobile both told ABC News that their respective networks are not experiencing outages but customers may experience difficulty when contacting individuals affected by outages at other providers.

“Verizon’s network is operating normally. Some customers experienced issues this morning when calling or texting with customers served by another carrier. We are continuing to monitor the situation,” a Verizon spokesperson said.

T-Mobile similarly told ABC News, “We did not experience an outage. Our network is operating normally. Down Detector is likely reflecting challenges our customers were having attempting to connect to users on other networks.”

Lee McKnight, an associate professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, said the most likely cause “is a cloud misconfiguration. Which is a fancy word for saying human error.”

“A possible but far less likely outcome is an intentional malicious hack of ATT’s network, but the diffuse pattern of outages across the country suggests something more fundamental,” he added in a statement.

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