We’ve all seen some of the latest apocalyptic movies with some pretty epic reasons for losing Internet, electricity and other modern technologies. What’s interesting is that a lot of these reasons are far-fetched and aren’t always entirely realistic.
So here is where you pose a really challenging question: How, in today’s world, can the Internet completely go down?
Before we get into “how” – we have to understand “what” the Internet really is. At a very high-level, the Internet is a vast interconnected network of data centers spanning the globe. These data centers have exchange points, protocols and routes that they have to follow. With every year that passes, the Internet becomes more and more resilient. Why? Because at this point, Internet communication is absolutely critical to the survival of our current society.
To really understand just how complex the Internet will be, here is the entire Internet network, in all of its glory.
We know the Internet is huge and that there are a lot of connections. So how can all of this fail? Well, there are a few ways.
Cutting the wires
Bringing down a couple – or even all – of the satellites will actually do little to cut Internet traffic. Yes, it will cause an amazing amount of issues, but the Internet will most likely live on. At this point, roughly 99 percent of global Web traffic is dependent on deep-sea networks of fiber-optic cables that blanket the ocean floor like a nervous system. These are major tangible targets – creating very real choke points in the system.
Consider this: As much as three-fourths of the international communications between the Middle East and Europe have been carried by two undersea cables, SeaMeWe-4 and FLAG Telecom’s FLAG Europe-Asia cable. To make things movie-worthy, you can’t just cut the wires. Why? Because they’re designed to be fixed. However, a strategic strike that will take out the fiber optic cables or damage the entire wire will do the trick. If this is done at choke points you can disable or almost completely halt global Internet traffic.
Destroy root servers
It’s much easier to go to Google.com than to type in 184.108.40.206. That’s what root servers do – they are responsible for decoding .com, .net, .org. names before aligning them with the correct IP address. If you take out these servers, the Internet will no longer recognize the alphabet when you type in an address.
Here’s the interesting part: there are “only” 13 servers that do this. Here’s the list of them. Effectively, if you take these servers down, the only way to “browse” the Internet will be with a physical piece of paper, a pen and a really good memory around numbers.
Here’s the other interesting part: take down these servers and IPv6 won’t work either. Phones, computers, businesses, everything will stop. The challenge with this is that these severs are replicated and backed-up and replicated hundreds of times over. Plus, with IPv6 – how these data centers receive and process multiple IP address is changing as well. Still, a “mission impossible” style attack where backups are killed, replication is stopped and only 13 servers remain could make a catastrophic outage possible.
China, Iran, North Korea, Syria and a few other folks already have an “Internet Kill Switch.” We’ve seen an entire country go dark. When Syrian and Egyptian rebels were posting pictures of the conflict, the government simply flipped a “switch.” This is what happened:
What if the U.S. had this switch? What about the EU? What if there were secret programs (NSA-style) that had complete control of the Internet from a kill-switch perspective? Here’s the interesting part – what if it broke? A country or governing body can take down the Internet; but what if they can’t bring it back up? What if a malicious group gains access to the kill switch and takes it down permanently? Even if you could fix it – having the Internet go down for a few months would be absolutely detrimental – especially if it was on a global scale.
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