In just 40 years, our whole civilization has become dependent on the Internet, in more ways than we could count. So when you hear activist groups threatening to crash the whole thing, or doomsday preppers warning of a global Internet failure, it's pretty scary.
But could someone actually bring the entire Internet down? We asked an expert.
Taking down the Internet is a lot easier said than done, according to IT expert Dewayne Hendricks, and the Internet is very much here to stay. Known as the "Broadband Cowboy," Hendricks has worked with AT&T, Cisco, WorldCom, and Lucent, and is currently CEO of Tetherless Access Inc.
"The first thing you need to know about the Internet," Hendricks tells io9, "is that there is no such thing as ‘the' Internet."
Simple, independent, and distributed
The Internet, says Hendricks, is "merely a series of highly distributed packet switchers." Most people get this wrong, he argues. "People tend to think it's this one thing — and it's not — it's important to get this idea across that it's thousands of independently owned and operated networks — networks that are tied together by physical connections that use a common protocol."
It's this very quality that has endowed the Internet with the capacity to not just remain live and active under extreme circumstances, but to repair itself and adapt when necessary. Taking the Internet down, therefore, is very much like trying to herd cats. It's essentially a network of networks.
And indeed, there has been some speculation about what it would take to bring down the entire Internet. Earlier this year, Gizmodo's Sam Biddle made a heroic effort at trying to figure out how to destroy the Internet, suggesting that it could be done (however unlikely) by cutting all the cables that bind the Internet together, ruining the root servers, and destroying all the data centers. Assuming this could be done, all the world's digital data would be left frozen on local machines. "Nothing can get anywhere, because all the roads, bridges, and traffic lights are in ruin," Biddle writes, "All that's left of the Internet is your office intranet, or the file-swapping in your dorm. The tiny shreds. There are nets, but none of them are inter."
Unfortunately — or fortunately depending on your persuasion — Biddle is not exactly correct. What he failed to realize is that, where there's people, there's an Internet.
Countermeasures and adaptations
Taking a step back from Biddle's quasi-apocalyptic scenario, and assuming the onset of more modest attacks against the Internet, there's no question that disruptions can and will happen. Parts of the net do go down from time-to-time, making it inaccessible for some — albeit temporarily. "Eventually the information will route around the dead spots and bring you back in," says Hendricks.
And indeed, people are constantly trying to develop new technologies that can take out increasingly larger swaths of the Internet — but their efforts are as futile as they are naive. "There are attacks all the time, [but] all that needs to happen are mutually agreed upon countermeasures," noted Hendricks.
For example, he explains how there are currently two Internet protocols in play, IPv4 and IPv6. Should someone be successful at taking down all the addresses of IPv6, there's still IPv4 as a backup. Moreover, anyone can run a DNS server and establish a root DNS to create a database of URLs and corresponding IPs.
Hendricks also describes how adjustments like configuration changes to routers, the use of alternative root servers, and other on-the-fly adaptations make things like Denial of Service (DOS) and other cyber attacks merely temporary inconveniences. They're like mosquito bites on an elephant.
Hendricks points to another very real example: The Darknet. This private, distributed peer-to-peer filesharing network has eluded law enforcement officials who are trying to develop new technologies to take it down. But by using non-standard protocols and ports, and by using anonymous routing techniques, the Darknet remains unhindered.
There's also the issue of China — a country that has tried to block-out large swaths of the Internet — and not very successfully. "There are a good number of people who have the technical skills to get around their blocking measures," noted Hendricks. Quoting computer scientist John Gilmore, he noted that "The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."
Like fighting the Borg
"The Internet works like the Borg Collective of Star Trek — it's basically a kind of hive mind," he adds. Essentially, because it's in everybody's best interest to keep the Internet up and running, there's a constant effort to patch and repair any problems. "It's like trying to defeat the Borg — a system that's massively distributed, decentralized, and redundant."
Like the Borg, the Internet simply mounts resources and finds a way to bring itself back. It also learns and adapts — like ensuring that packets aren't routed to networks that aren't trusted. "The Internet is people," said Hendricks, "and it works like a hive mind."
Ad hoc communications
The ability to retain access to the Internet's resources is essentially about maintaining connections — and as Hendricks notes, there's plenty of ways to do it. Just because physical cables and wires can be cut, and root servers and data centers gutted (even en masse), this doesn't mean there still won't be ways for people to re-establish connections. In the event of a catastrophe and severe damage to the IT infrastructure, it's likely that people hell-bent on getting the Internet back up will successfully do so through informal ad hoc communications.
For example, there would still be the low-Earth communication satellites that allocate a portion of bandwidth to regular IP traffic. These comsats could establish connections between wireless devices or any other terminal that still has access to fiber cables. As an example, this is how the military re-established connections after the 2006 tsunami disaster in Thailand — they set up a satellite connection from one point, sent their signals up into space, and then down to a receiving terminal. Instant network.
But assuming these satellites could somehow be taken down (which would really require military action), there's still the potential for single packet radios — a form of packet-switching technology that's used to transmit digital data via radio or wireless links. If enough people have access to these devices, and each unit is within range of at least one other packet radio, there will still be an Internet. And according to Hendricks, devices like these are the real deal, with over 4,000 wireless IPs in the United States alone. Such devices could be propped up in weather balloons or UAVs, and tracked using GPS.
Now, this may not be ‘the' Internet that we're familiar with today, but it'll be a network that connects people nonetheless. These "seed" networks might start out small, but they would grow over time — especially when they start to come into contact with other recovering networks.
The Internet is people
Hendricks points to real world examples in which IT infrastructures were severely compromised, including New Orleans after Katrina, and Egypt during the uprisings. Both of these regions had temporary disruptions, but were up in a startlingly short amount of time. These examples bring another aspect of the Internet to mind — the idea that people will quickly scramble to restore damaged infrastructure. Now that we have the Internet we have become like ants who have had their ant hills swept away by a storm; we quickly scramble to work and restore the network.
Thinking more catastrophically, we asked Hendricks what would happen in the event of a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) as a result of either a malicious attack or a super solar storm. It's thought that such an event would bring down electrical grids and render all electronic equipment useless. "No global EMP or cascade is going to cover the entire planet," he answered, "the Internet will survive even local EMPs." He believes that the portions of the world who did still have the Internet would send supplies to areas that didn't, and quickly re-establish a communications infrastructure. "The Internet would be up much quicker than we think," he said.
"The Internet is not just technology, it's people — you can trust people, they're resilient," he said, "look at what they do in emergencies — we always answer to a greater calling."
Pausing for a moment to reflect, Hendricks closed our conversation by saying, "The only way to bring down the Internet is to get rid of all the people."