How to Find, Hack and Protect Fiber Optic Cables

Michael Meyer, Chief Risk Officer and Chief Innovation Officer, MRS BPO

Michael Meyer, Chief Risk Officer and Chief Innovation Officer, MRS BPO

Most people look at a fiber optic cable with wonder because the cable and light technology that it uses is so incredible and beyond their comprehension, that they think it is impossible outside of spy movies like “Mission Impossible” for it to be hacked. Guess what? They are completely wrong!  While the technology is impressive and beyond the comprehension of most people, like all technologies—it has multiple weaknesses that can and have been exploited for many years.

"Hacking fiber optic cables is relatively easy once you practice how to do it a number of times"

The first step in hacking a fiber optic cable is to find one. You might think it is hard to find a fiber optic cable, well, guess again. These cables are everywhere in your business, building, or borough. They usually hide in plain sight, no matter where you work or live. Look in most office buildings, and on most telephone poles or cell towers and you will see the familiar orange or yellow coating that runs up the poles and connects them to the information grid. You can go down the road in most areas and see signs that say,  “a fiber optic cable has been buried below.”  Yes, I know, it is hard to believe that most fiber optic cable owners would actually put up signs showing you exactly where their cables are buried—but they do this to prevent accidental cable cuts. While accidents do happen, hackers also could use these signs. In fact, they could have been used by vandals to find, trace, and cut a dozen major cables in California since 2014. While even the FBI still cannot find the motive, rationale,or culprits for these fiber cuts, this type of activity shows how poorly guarded, easily accessible, and completely vulnerable most major fiber cables truly are.

Fiber optic cables are found not only in buildings or on land but also under lakes, rivers, and oceans. In fact, most fiber cable or telecommunications companies have maps available of fiber optic cables via an internet search that shows you where they are. Even though regular and fiber optic cables that run under the ocean are much more difficult to get to, they too have been hacked since the early 70s, beginning with the U.S. intelligence operation “Ivy Bells” using specially outfitted submarines, so no type of cable or location is immune to being hacked.

Once you have identified the potential cable you want to hack into, you must understand something about the physical fiber optic cable before you can attempt to hack it. While there are a number of fiber types, there are two main types of fiber optic cables—single mode and multimode. Single mode consists of one strand of fiber and one mode of light. Multimode consists of multiple strands of fiber and multiple modes of light. For our hacking purposes, we will use the easiest type of cable to hack into, which is the single mode fiber optic cable.  Single mode fiberis normally powered by a strong light source like a laser diode, has a yellow jacket, and is used for longer distances. This strong light source means that if we put a cable splitter in at one end, or along the path to tap the signals, most likely the resulting slight loss of light (called attenuation) will not be enough to cause service issues and be noticed by technical or security personnel.  Another way to tap this type of cable mid-span would be to use a clip-on coupler, which provides a non-invasive way to be able to see the light as it passes through the cable. Using this type of coupler attached to a PC running Wireshark, or other packet capture tool, means that you can see the data that is traversing the fiber optic cable in real-time or record it for later off-line analysis. These types of fiber clip on couplers are very common. You can find complete details on how to attach this coupler on the internet via simple searches and even buy them locally at stores. The hardest part of this process is removing the coating around the fiber. I suggest you practice removing the coating using a solvent, cleaning the cable and attaching the coupler several times, because these steps require a lot of patience as does properly positioning the coupler for the best light capture. Hacking fiber optic cables is relatively easy once you practice how to do it a number of times.  This type of hacking is a true man in the middle attack.

Now that you know that hacking fiber optic cables are not hard to do, it’s time to figure out how to protect your cables and more importantly the data that traverses them. There are several physical methods that can be used, the first is to physically hide the fiber cables away behind locked doors or closed metal conduits, or by trying to make them difficult to access because they are high above the floor or walkways. The second way to protect them, which is less common unless the fiber is exposed to outside weather or external conditions, is to use armored cable. This type of fiber optic cable is rather difficult to get into without damaging the cable inside it and highly recommended when the cable is placed in an easily accessible place. In addition to these physical techniques to protect the cable, the data can be encrypted—which is probably the single best way to protect any type of data going across any type of fiber. If you are not encrypting your data going across fiber optic cables, the time to start is now!