Back in April of 2013 there was an attack on a power station in Southern California. The attack was calculated, detailed, planned, and execute well. There were many details that perked my interest including the oil tanks being targeted instead of the windings themselves. This would limit catastrophic damage to the transformer. Additionally numerous fiber-optic lines in the area were cut, including those run by Level 3 Communications.
I have read a few writeup discussing the attack and I did come across one theory that was interesting.
Gabriel: Have you ever heard of Harry Houdini? Well he wasn’t like today’s magicians who are only interested in television ratings. He was an artist. He could make an elephant disappear in the middle of a theater filled with people, and do you know how he did that? Misdirection.
Stanley: What the f*** are you talking about?
Gabriel: Misdirection. What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.
Swordfish movie (2001)
[See the PowerPoint here]
On the morning of the 16th of April 2013 the following events unfolded at, and around, the PG&E Metcalf Transmission Substation in San Jose, Calif.:
- 12:58 a.m. AT&T fiber-optic telecommunications cables were cut not far from U.S. Highway 101 just outside south San Jose.
- 1:07 a.m. Some customers of Level 3 Communications, an Internet service provider, lost service. Cables in its vault near the Metcalf substation were also cut.
- 1:31 a.m. A surveillance camera pointed along a chain-link fence around the substation recorded a streak of light that investigators from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office think was a signal from a waved flashlight. It was followed by the muzzle flash of rifles and sparks from bullets hitting the fence.
- 1:37 a.m. PG&E confirms received an alarm from motion sensors at the substation, possibly from bullets grazing the fence.
- 1:41 a.m. San Jose Sheriff’s department received a 911 call about gunfire, sent by an engineer at a nearby power plant that still had phone service.
- 1:45 a.m. The first bank of transformers, riddled with bullet holes and having leaked 52,000 gallons of oil, overheated – at which time PG&E’s control center about 90 miles north received an equipment-failure alarm.
- 1:50 a.m. Another apparent flashlight signal, caught on film, marked the end of the attack. More than 100 shell casings of the sort ejected by AK-47s were later found at the site.
- 1:51 a.m. Law-enforcement officers arrived, but found everything quiet. Unable to get past the locked fence and seeing nothing suspicious, they left.
- 3:15 a.m. A PG&E worker arrives to survey the damage.
The damage to the substation took 27 days to repair and cost $15.4 Million. In the substation’s 500kV yard, ten transformers were damaged; In the 230kV yard, seven transformers were damaged; In the 115kV yard, 6 circuit breakers were damaged. It was also claimed that a total of 52,000 gallons of mineral oil (used for cooling) leaked as a result of the bullet strikes.
The damage to the fiber-optic telecommunications infrastructure was repaired within 24 hours. AT&T had six cables cut and needed to install new cables to work around the affected area. LEVEL 3 Communications had one cable cut, which was repaired within 10 hours.
The attack on the substation was so over-the-top, especially given that no long-term damage was inflicted, that it more appropriately should have been an entry in Bruce Schneier’s Movie Plot Threat Contest. The trope “orgy of evidence” comes to mind because the attack was so inconsequential for the level of effort expended. Sure it lightened PG&E’s wallet and provided an opportunity for endless sound bites by consultants and lobbyists touting their employers agendas, but nobody’s lights went out as a result of this attack.
So this brings us back to Houdini’s misdirection. Two events occur, one is over-the-top and will obviously lead in the morning media, the other deals with some cut cables in holes next to railroad tracks – decidedly non-spectacular and non-photogenic.
The thing is is that the Metcalf Transmission Substation is next to railroad tracks. And it happens that the railroads’ right of way is used to run fiber-optic cables. I’m sure you’ve heard of SPRINT, which use to be SP Communications, which was founded by Southern Pacific Railroad way back when. Fiber is why all the big name companies in Silicon Valley want to be as close to the railroad tracks as possible!
If we assume that the real target was the telecommunications infrastructure, how would someone tap some of the most monitored lines in the world?
By causing the fiber cables to be so extensively damaged that new sections have to be pulled to work around the damage. This level of disruption would require that any quality/security scans performed – using optical time domain reflectometers (OTDRs) – be re-calibrated after the repairs. The new cable sections could have been pre-engineered to have clip-on couplers (passive taps) built in that exert “micro bending” (i.e., spatial wavelength displacement). If they are detectable by the OTDR they would probably show up as noise near the repaired areas and be ignored. And the voila! Job done.
The next challenge for the strike team would be getting the output from the couplers to somewhere it could be analyzed. Once it was confirmed that the couplers had not been detected, then another team could move in and install appropriate transmitters or couple them into dark fiber for back-haul to data extraction.
We may never know the who/why of this attack. The over-the-top nature of it suggests that it was corporate sponsored as opposed to sovereign. The Metcalf Substation does have some interesting corporate neighbors, but given the nature of the communications traffic flowing in that right of way just about anyone using or traversing that corridor could have been the target.
TL;DR: The substation was actually a diversion.
But there wasn’t much to give credence to the situation until I saw my inbox this morning. Let me repeat something before we start with the new data:
Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three or more times is enemy action. And I don’t believe in coincidence.
Lets start with the first article that hit my inbox, USA today.
FBI agents declined to specify how significantly the attack affected customers, citing the ongoing investigation. In Tuesday’s attack, someone broke into an underground vault and cut three fiber-optic cables belonging to Colorado-based service providers Level 3 and Zayo.
(Emphasis mine.) Well that’s interesting, but it doesn’t sound all that interesting. The article does note that the incidents have occurred in remote areas but attempts to play it as merely petty vandalism to delay people from getting their cat videos. (No I’m not making it up, see this line…)
First you have to catch the vandals to fine them, and if this has nothing to do with vandalizing infrastructure but instead tapping it this is a very serious thing. But certainly those lines will help calm those who don’t know details, have the attention span of a squirrel, and don’t have the memory to correlate other external events that are most likely related.
Now lets flip over to the Wall Street Journal.
The latest attack hit several cables in Livermore, Calif., shortly before 4:30 a.m. Pacific time and hadn’t been repaired as of early Tuesday evening, according to several Internet service providers affected by the outage. Some operators complained that law enforcement activity made it harder for crews to fix the problem.
“When some of the first cuts were taking place, the cuts and cables were fixed, and there was no evidence, no anything to look at,” he said. “We just need to have a little bit more time to have our people go in.”
I love the complaints about law enforcement making it difficult to repair the communication lines because they want to inspect and collect evidence. This is a classic case of “repair the problem, investigate no further on root cause.” Please stop digging you could induce panic.
Again the paper plays this off not nearly as serious almost as if it’s just some kids out pranking the world. Then we get to the local paper…
Wait, it wasn’t just one cable shared by multiple service providers, but three different cables? Additionally as these were related to the backbone and given one of the providers involved you just tapped a decent chunk of the internet. Just what the hell is going on down there. I start searching for more information, including something on the Metcalf substation incident to try to cross reference and discover this:
The Silicon Valley power substation that was attacked by a sniper in April 2013 was hit by thieves early Wednesday morning, according to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, despite increased security.
The substation, near San Jose, Calif., is the source of energy for thousands of customers, and the idea that it was the target of a well-organized attack, and that it might have been disabled for an extended period, raised anxieties about the possible broader vulnerability of the grid. The attack this week did not involve gunfire, and it did not seem intended to disable the facility.
The date on that “theft” is August 27, 2014. The recent string of attacks on the fibre lines started July 2014. Tell me, if you wanted to inspect the response and repair actions of an attack couldn’t you just easily disguise it as a simple theft? You could get up close and personal and inspect exactly how the substation was repaired and what additional actions were taken to harden the substation.
Look, I’m a big fan of Halon’s razor and I hate conspiracy theories because honestly 99% of them are bullshit. But we have multiple, repeat incidents. There were clues and suspicion of possible nation-state involvement which were dismissed. We have an administration who actively works to diminish the significance of attacks and events that surround us and affect us in deep and profound ways. Additionally we see that there are outside nation states who have taken a keen interest in the United States. Just look at the Office of Personnel Management hack, seriously that is a threat beyond what most realize. Then while all this is going on we have people calling to critically weaken our cyber security infrastructure, in the name of stopping terrorism.
There is someone gathering intelligence, placing equipment in the correct locations, and improving their leverage against us. We’re in a technological cold war and we’re seeing the spill over from the physical side of things. Things are not looking good, safe, or secure, especially with over 18 trillion in national debt. Stay safe and keep your powder dry.
Barron is the owner, editor, and principal author at The Minuteman, a competitive shooter, and staff member for Boomershoot. Even in his free time he’s merging his love and knowledge of computers and technology with his love of firearms.
He has a BS in electrical engineering from Washington State University. Immediately after college he went into work on embedded software and hardware for use in critical infrastructure. This included cryptographic communications equipment as well as command and control devices that were using that communications equipment. Since then he’s worked on just about everything ranging from toys, phones, other critical infrastructure, and even desktop applications. Doing everything from hardware system design, to software architecture, to actually writing software that makes your athletic band do its thing.