". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Cellular Shutoff Sparks Security Fears

February 23, 2024

Thursday’s widespread cellular outages gave Americans a tiny taste of the pandemonium that could result if a foreign adversary such as China ever launched a serious cyber attack, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) warned on “Washington Watch” Thursday. Users of AT&T’s cellular network reported tens of thousands of outages stretching from New York City to Chicago to Houston, which lasted from 3:30 a.m. into the afternoon.

The service outage caused major disruptions to people who have grown reliant on the technology in their pocket. Think of all the ways you use your phone that require a network connection, and imagine if all of it suddenly stopped working one day. No calls, no email, no social media, no texting your kids, no map navigation, no pulling up airline tickets, no Venmo transactions, no looking up definitions, no restaurant rewards points, no checking the weather, and no reading The Washington Stand. In a familiar location, AT&T customers could probably access some of those features via Wi-Fi, but public Wi-Fi is not always available, reliable, or convenient.

Some cellular users even reported they were unable to call 911, leading some cities’ emergency departments to respond. “If you are an AT&T customer and cannot get through to 911, then please try calling from a landline,” posted the San Francisco Fire Department. “If that is not an option[,] then please try to get ahold of a friend or family member who is a customer of a different carrier[,] and ask them to call 911 on your behalf.”

Approximately three-quarters (73%) of American adults have no landline in their home — not that it would matter in the event of a house fire. In the event of an emergency, these people would have the unenviable task of trying to identify, locate, and contact someone with a different cellular carrier, all while their cell phone wasn’t working.

Initial reporting of the incident was plagued with inaccuracies. First reports suggested that Verizon and T-Mobile networks were also affected with outages, but those carriers responded that users were only affected when trying to call a number on AT&T’s networks.

Initial reports also said that the FBI and DHS were investigating the incident as a potential hack or national security threat, but White House spokesman John Kirby later clarified, “Right now, we’re being told that AT&T has no reason to think that this was a cybersecurity incident.”

“We are not prepared as a nation” if China ever launched “an all-out shutdown,” Burchett insisted. “If our food [or] supply of electricity was cut off, if they were able to do this on a large scale … what would happen? … Our system would completely shut down.” He added, “They very much have the capabilities of doing [that] to us, due to the fact that we have sold our souls to the Chinese with technology and computer chips.” Burchett cited Chinese-owned farmland, Chinese installations near military bases, and Chinese-owned meat processing plants.

Speaking last week at an international security conference in Munich, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned about China’s cyber capabilities, which included “offensive weapons within our critical infrastructure poised to attack whenever Beijing decides the time is right.” Last year, the U.S. revealed a Chinese hacking network named Volt Typhoon which lay dormant inside U.S. infrastructure.

If the Chinese did ever conduct a large-scale cyber attack against U.S. critical infrastructure, they would target multiple systems at the same time. A disruption of the cellular network would disrupt not only a few thousand AT&T customers but everyone with a connected device. Redundancies in the system, like the ability to connect to Wi-Fi, would also be compromised if, for example, the power grid was also targeted. Such a cyber attack might not destroy America, but it might temporarily cripple or blind us at an opportune time, such as the moment China decided to launch an invasion of Taiwan.

Meanwhile on Thursday, “A suspected nation-state associated cyber security threat actor” hacked into a major U.S. health insurer. That much graver threat received far less attention in the media.

Fortunately, the AT&T incident was not a cyber attack, but such an attack would not be unlikely. And, if it were a cyber attack, the consequences would be far more damaging.

Instead of a cyber attack, AT&T blamed the incident on a coding error, activated during scheduled maintenance.

How does a company worth $120 billion, servicing more than 220 million subscribers, not only allow such a calamitous mistake, but also spend the better part of the day figuring out how to solve it? Could they not just restore a backup version of the code from Wednesday? AT&T hasn’t shared any of the details. But perhaps Hanlon’s razor provides a clue: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity [or incompetence].”

“Hold on a second,” you might be thinking, “surely such a powerful and successful corporation only hires and promotes the best-quality employees according to strict standards of merit.”

Think again. AT&T runs an extensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) program, with a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) focused on making the company “an even more inclusive and more equitable workplace and society.” It publishes multi-year data showing how various identity categories are represented across its workforce and management, in 26 categories. AT&T boasted that, in 2022 (the most recent available ESG report), 75% of open positions and 69% of internal promotions “were filled by women and/or people of color candidates.”

In other words, AT&T has gone just as woke as the companies and agencies responsible for airplane parts falling out of the sky.

Is it theoretically possible for a company to publish diversity statistics without having jumped in the deep end of woke nonsense? Perhaps. Does that describe AT&T? Not in the slightest. DEI training documents leaked from AT&T in 2021 proclaimed, “White people, you are the problem,” proceeding to allege that “American racism is a uniquely white trait,” and “Black people cannot be racist.” Christopher Rufo reported in City Journal that white employees who refuse to admit to “systemic racism” or sign a loyalty pledge can be penalized in performance reviews.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the company billing itself as “America’s most reliable 5G network.” Except when a coding error uploaded during scheduled maintenance crashes your phone’s network for most of Thursday. I’m sure many of AT&T’s more than 100,000 employees are skilled, intelligent, and competent. But the extent of their DEI programming raises the possibility that some are not, and it also raises the possibility that this latter group would be promoted.

With such self-inflicted wounds, China barely needs to interfere in U.S. infrastructure. But if they ever decided to do so, would you want a diversity-focused programming team from AT&T trying to fend them off? The Chinese are “the ones that are capable of doing” a large-scale cyber attack against critical U.S. infrastructure, said Burchett. “They’re the ones who have an agenda. They’re the ones who have complete control of this situation.” “Our greatest threat … is Communist China,” warned Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. Our second greatest threat might be corporate America’s misguided overcommitment to woke DEI programming.

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.