Cyber attack in New Caledonia

Unbeknownst to us, cyber attacks happen all of the time, every day, everywhere in the world – even in the South Pacific. Earlier this week we were the victims of a cyber attack, along with 650 others, in New Caledonia. Our phone and Internet went down shortly after we received an email from our Internet provider alerting us to a cyber attack in progress.

Gulp. Cyber attack? Here?

Really?

I went through a strange and horrible minute when I realised I was completely disconnected from the rest of the world. Being on what feels like the very edge of the planet (both in terms of distance and time difference) can feel pretty intense at times. This is softened in my mind by a connection that puts me in touch with literally hundreds of people (or just one deeply loved family member) inside seconds. When that connection goes down, you realise anything can happen anywhere in the world, and you won’t know about it – until a letter washes up in a bottle on a beach, or a boat arrives, or a plane flies in with news from abroad.

Normally, phone and Internet going down should not be that big a deal in a country that goes to bed at 20.00-21.00. Honestly. Everyone is sleeping, right? But in my case, I often work at night and on line at that. The night of the attack,  I had a call scheduled with Paris and content to put on line for the organisation I work for – so I needed both phone and Internet access.

No go.

Eventually I was able to use IM (instant messaging) on my iPhone and later access the web via 3G to cancel the phone call and alert my colleagues to the fact that I could not access the network.

The next day I went straight to the provider (everyone does everything in person here). A long line awaited me. What amazed me was that the line was silent. No one was sharing information. They all waited patiently for their turn in the queue, obtained some kind of information and left.

I couldn’t help it. I broke the silence. I asked how many of them were there because they didn’t have Internet or phone. All of them. How many brought in their modems? Most of them. Who knew if there had been any change to status since early this morning? No one knew (among the waiting). I joked that we needed a large screen announcing status, when things were expected to improve, and what we could do. At this point, the staff started communicating with everyone in line, “Internet was restored 5 minutes ago. Only these modems (holds up a white, rectangular modem) have been attacked.”

Which was great.

When I got up to my customer service agent, I communicated everything I knew to everyone in line behind me. “You’ll need to pick up a new VOIP phone. They will give it to you free of charge. You’ll need to have 2 phones connected to receive and make local, VOIP and international calls. Internet appears to be working. You do not need to bring in your modem.”

Before I left, I asked the question no one seemed to want to ask, “And if this doesn’t work, what do we do? Come back?” The answer was yes. But they hoped we wouldn’t be back.

“And if we have to come back, can we expect tea and coffee? A free month of access for our troubles?”

Laughter filled the room and my agent told me she would ask her director what could be done to recompense clients that had missed work, etc., during the lockdown.

Suffice it to say that we got things working with the new set-up later Wednesday morning. For 2 days.

Friday afternoon, wifi and VOIP went down again. I called and left a message with tech support.

Who needs wifi and VOIP, you ask. Well, we use wifi for our phones and iPad – and VOIP for international calls. Turns out Friday night, I had another call scheduled with Paris (the same one that was missed on the Tuesday). It was cancelled at the last minute, but I had another important call to make. Skype wasn’t working (doesn’t work on 3G), IM wasn’t working. So my friend called my mobile from Paris – I shudder to think of how much that call cost!

Saturday morning tech support returned my call just as I was trying to reach them again. Turns out of the 650 modems that had come under attack, now 180 of them were experiencing problems due to an update gone awry. We were one of them. So after I gave them my landline number and IP address, they were able to reconfigure the modem from a distance – and everything worked again 5 minutes later.

I asked the provider if they planned to inform the 180 affected users that they needed to call CAN’L and communicate their details so their modems could be reconfigured.

“No, they seem to be contacting us.”

“But you are closing at noon today (it was Saturday), right?”

“We don’t know, at this rate.”

“How many people do you have working on this?”

“Five technicians.”

“Do you think it will all be fixed soon?”

“We hope so.”

So do I – for their sake, for ours, and for those who may still be experiencing trouble.

So what is all this about?  Turns out hackers in Eastern Europe had exploited a vulnerability in 650 modems here in New Caledonia – and were able to overtake our phone lines to make phone calls to Lithuania and Latvia. The local phone company hadn’t noticed a problem until our Internet provider contacted them. Astronomical phone bills will apparently be covered by the Internet provider

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