Failure of emergency numbers: “This is one of the first major failures we encountered”

Gérôme Billois, cybersecurity expert at the consulting firm Wavestone, returns Thursday to franceinfo on the general blackout which affected emergency numbers in France on the night of Wednesday to Thursday.


While the emergency numbers suffered a general blackout in France overnight from Wednesday to Thursday, with several lines restored from midnight, Gérôme Billois, cybersecurity expert at the Wavestone consulting firm, pointed out Thursday to franceinfo des “equipment that can fail, often during maintenance operations ”.

franceinfo: How did we get there?

Gérôme Billois : Managing emergency numbers is simple for users: we call 15, 18, 112. On the other hand, behind it, it’s a complex architecture, because you have to know where you are, then put you in touch with the fire brigade or the Samu who is closest to you. There is a smart system that has to match your location to the place that really needs to be called, the number that really needs to be called. And all this is based on a computer architecture made up of lots of equipment, including the famous router we are talking about here.

What is a router problem?

A router is a bit like an interchange, as we have on highways. But it is an exchanger in the digital world, that is to say that it is an equipment, a box, which is connected to electricity, to which many cables are connected. And when something will happen on an outlet, on one of these cables, it will choose directions: if someone calls from the city of Lyon, it will send it back to the Samu in the city of Lyon. We often have the impression that digital technology works all the time. But behind, it is tens, hundreds, thousands of electronic devices which are in play to answer the services which one uses. And this equipment, at one time or another, can fail, often during maintenance operations. We remember that TF1 had a failure in its 1 pm newscast for exactly the same reason. And players like Google, Apple or even Amazon have already had such failures. Now we have to see how it was designed and if these failures or maintenance had been planned, if backup systems had been deployed properly.

How does the back-up system work in our case?

What is nevertheless notable is that there was a “non-digital” emergency system, that is to say that the numbers were immediately communicated to the population. Now, yes, there must be back-up systems. The problem is that these digital backup systems are often complex, because often what we do is double: instead of having a router, which can fail, we put two. The problem is, you have to be able to switch from one to the other when the first one breaks down, and you have to be really down to switch to the other. Sometimes, we switch to one, we switch to the other, we switch to one, and the system which is made for the emergency will rather degrade the service. It is far too early to draw any conclusions. And the scenario I am evoking is one of the possible scenarios. But it’s going to be interesting and important for the safety of all French people, to know what happened and how it can be improved.

What conclusions can be drawn from this failure?

We will obviously have to wait for the government’s investigation, which will be complex because it is both technological and organizational, and it will involve many technological elements. To my knowledge, this is also one of the first major failures that we encountered, even though these numbers have been around for a very long time. We will have to investigate in depth to improve the systems and that does not happen again.


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