Chaos as communications and the internet go offline in Australia
- Optus suffers a network outage, leaving millions without communication services.
- The Optus outage also affected payments, transportation, and internet services.
- Optus has ruled out the outage being a cyberattack.
Australia has descended into technological chaos as phone and internet services has gone offline. Millions were affected as services from Optus experienced an unexplained nationwide outage. This is the second major incident involving Optus after a major data breach during the same period last year.
This time, the impact was much more severe as the outage not only crippled communication services and the internet but also led to morning peak-hour chaos in the country as train networks and other digital services were down.
Payment systems were also affected, with the Commonwealth Bank warning that some customers might encounter difficulties with some services. According to a report by Reuters, hospitals and emergency services across the country were also hit by the outage. Ramsay Health Care, which owns 70 hospitals and clinics in Australia, said its phone services were impacted.
“At this time, we are unaware how long this outage will continue. If you need to contact your local Ramsay hospital, please direct inquiries via the contact form on the local hospital’s website,” it said on its Facebook page.
Australia’s Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said she had “limited” information about the outage. Reuters also reported that Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin ruled out a cyberattack. However, in an interview on ABC Radio, Rosmarin did not give a reason for the outage or say how long it would take for services to be restored.
Not the first major incident in Australia
The timing of the outage could not be any worse for Optus. The telco company is still recovering from a significant data breach last year. In the largest data breach in the history of the country, the personal data of around 10 million customers was stolen in a cyberattack.
The ransomware attack began a series of cyberattacks targeting the nation. Since then, the Australian government has imposed stricter data privacy laws, with businesses also investing more in their cybersecurity.
The financial impact of the outage remains to be calculated, but it is estimated that the losses will be heavy, especially for businesses that rely on the Optus network. Before the Optus data breach last year, data breach fines were not more than AUD$2 million. Now, the penalties could go up to AU$50 million for an organization.
Singapore’s Singtel owns Optus and has over 10 million customers – around 40% of Australia’s population. Australian Senator Gerrard Rennick tweeted that the outage by Optus “just goes to show why banks need to keep branches open so that people can access cash to buy essential goods and services.”
The tweet was in reference to the fact that customers were unable to make payments on the network, often touted as reliable enough to allow for a cashless society and branch closures. Social media was filled with frustrated Australians not being able to get to work, book a ride, or even make payments for meals at cafes and such.
Possible causes of Optus outage
While investigations and recovery are ongoing, there could be several reasons why the blackout occurred. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that because the outage started at around 4 in the morning, it could have been caused by a software or firmware update.
There is also the possibility that an incorrect message sent from either inside or outside the Optus network provided inaccurate traffic routing instructions, according to network engineers. Most organizations conduct network updates overnight, between 2 am and 4 am, as most users would are not active at these times.
An Optus source, who did not wish to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, also told the Sydney Morning Herald that a Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) prefix flood from a peer was likely causing the issues on the telco’s core network. Network owners and operators’ routers share routing information using BGP.
The wrong instruction could have been sent from an internet exchange (a physical location similar to a data center, where multiple internet providers and network operators interconnect their networks), directly from an internet provider, or from a content provider.
Australia’s Communication Workers Union said the outage was an “absolute disgrace,” suggesting it was linked to recent job cuts at the company.
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology researcher Mark Gregory told AFP the disruptions showed fundamental problems in Australia’s communications networks.
“Single point of failure-related outages have occurred too often over the past decades, and it is time that the government forces the telecommunications industry to build redundancy into the networks and systems.”
Meanwhile, Monash University senior lecturer Dr Bill Corcoran told The Guardian Australia that the outage will “cause us to have a closer look at how we want to run this critical national infrastructure across multiple private companies.”
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