If you're reading this, you're on the Internet, and we have a question: Is it getting a little scary around here lately?
In the span of just a few short weeks, marquee online entities like Google, Twitter, The New York Times website and even the NASDAQ stock exchange were hit with disruptions and extended outages that sent worrisome ripples through cyberspace. The disruptions were blamed on technical glitches, and possibly hackers, with some reports suggesting a coordinated attack by a pro-Syria cyberterrorist organization.
For those prone to a kind of low-grade ambient paranoia, the outages suggest a grim scenario: Are these events equivalent to the flickering of house lights before a massive blackout descends? Could a large-scale disaster or attack take down some or even all of the global online network? That is to say, is it possible for the Internet to crash?
Nothing is impossible, according to Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and author of several books on the Internet and online technology. While it's true that the Internet is built around decentralization and redundant backup systems, it is the nature of catastrophes that they're not necessarily predictable or preventable.
"Think about the history of electrical power," Levinson said. "Back when it was introduced in the 1880s, a lot of work was done to put in redundant back up systems and the technology improved over the years. But as we know, every few years there's a major power failure. Catastrophes are part of life and technology."
Even if we were just to confine the scenario to the continental United States, it's unlikely that any kind of natural disaster could take out all the nation's network service providers (NSPs), which have nodes scattered all over the country. Geographically speaking, there's not a natural disaster big enough to take out all the NSP facilities in the United States. "Well, not without taking out the country itself," Levinson said with a chuckle.
As such, the principal worry is cyberterrorism or the deliberate introduction of malicious software to cripple the NSP system from within. "A terrorist virus could certainly be a worry," Levinson said. "The vectors really are like a disease situation. That why the word virus is a good word. Whether it's digital or biological, once they get into the system they can spread very quickly from one system to another."
But with an entire industry dedicated to cybersecurity issues, is it even conceivable that a virus attack could really cripple Internet access in the United States? "It would be very complicated, but it's possible," said Stephen Haag, professor in residence in the Department of Business Information and Analytics at the University of Denver.
"Because of the distributed nature of the Internet and the number of redundant backup systems, an event would have to target a number of network service providers," Haag said. "These maintain the infrastructure or backbone of the Internet. If one fails, then Internet traffic is simply routed among hundreds of other paths to get to its destination. So, the event would have to cripple many NSPs."
And again, there is always the specter of the unexpected. "You build firewalls to keep out things that you already know how they work and how they attack," Levinson said. "And that's great until some evil genius develops something that knows how to get around those firewalls."
Let's say the unthinkable happens and somehow, some way, the Internet crashes at midnight tonight. What would tomorrow look like?
"A huge Internet blackout would bring almost every electronic activity to a grinding halt," Haag said. "No planes flying in the air, no stock market, no electronic payments. Just think of every system that relies on the Internet. The average American relies on the successful operation of over 250 computers per day. And most of those are connected to the Internet and need Internet-based communications to work correctly.”
"It wouldn't be on the level of biological warfare, where people are getting sick and dying immediately," Levison said. "But if we weren't prepared, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it would damage civilization as we know it."
Even if a massive Internet outage didn't impact hard infrastructure systems directly -- utilities, transport, water management -- it could still affect these systems indirectly. The computers running the electrical grid might be protected or isolated, but the people pushing the buttons on those computers would still need to communicate over long distances.
And in many instances, no one really knows to what extent an Internet disruption would impact other systems. "We're dependent in so many ways that we don't realize," Levinson said. "So we can't get our movie tickets online, big deal. But you're talking about medical records, financial transactions, things that would cripple the economy. Honestly, I don't know the extent to which every single system is tied up to the Internet. But I suspect it would wreak havoc on pretty much everything that we do."
Skeptics of a large-scale Internet crash scenario have plenty of ammunition for their argument. After all, what we call the Internet is actually a network of millions of other networks, massively redundant, the most sophisticated communications matrix in the history of technology. There's no way it can crash. Right?
Levinson gets the question a lot. "When someone says to me 'What do you think could cause it?', my reply is that it's exactly what I don't know -- what we don't know -- that will cause the problem.
"There's a field of study that I've done a fair amount of work in -- systems theory is one of the common names for it -- and what it says is that, in any system, it's impossible to root out every conceivable problem. If the circumstances are right, you get a catastrophe."