Feb 22, 2024 - Technology

AT&T outage was "not a cyber attack"

Illustration of a manicured hand holding a phone with a spinning black and white vortex on the screen

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

AT&T says Thursday's outage which left thousands of customers without service and unable to call 911, was "not a cyber attack," the company believes.

Why it matters: Despite threats from nation-state hackers in China and Russia, it's still statistically more likely that a network outage would be caused by misconfigurations or faulty settings.

  • The FCC, DHS and the FBI were reportedly all investigating the incident on Thursday, which may have led people to assume it was a cyberattack.
  • White House spokesperson John Kirby said there was "no reason" to think the incident was due to a cybersecurity issue, although AT&T is still investigating the root cause.
  • "We are continuing our assessment of today's outage," AT&T's website said late Thursday evening.

Between the lines: When faced with a service outage, customers tend to jump to the worst case scenarios that cybercriminals or nation-state hackers are the culprits.

  • That's often because movies and television depict hackers as technologically savvy villains eager to start the ultimate cyber war — even if that's not entirely true.

Reality check: AT&T said that a network misconfiguration likely caused Thursday's outage, not a cyberattack — and that's the case for most network outages, according to data from the Uptime Institute.

  • Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Kentik, said in a post on X (formerly Twitter) that if the outage was tied to a cyberattack, all devices would have been down, not just a handful.
  • A U.S. cyber official told CNN that although the investigation is ongoing, "there has so far been no indication that the outage was caused by malicious cyber activity."

Between the lines: AT&T's outage was widespread and felt longer than the typical, short-lived service outage — providing ample time for people to dream up the worst case scenario.

  • Some news outlets, such as the Daily Mail, ran headlines suspecting the outage was due to a distributed denial of service attack or a cyber intrusion.
  • Others compared the incident on social media to the cyber apocalypse portrayed in the Netflix film "Leave the World Behind."

The intrigue: Media often focuses on the drama in cybersecurity, like organized crime, data extortion and cyberwar, Theresa Payton, CEO of Fortalice Solutions and former CIO at The White House, told Axios.

  • That hyper-fixation in the media has now encouraged the general public to expect the worst during a network outage, she added.
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