We’re all aware of Kim Kardashian’s attempt to “break the internet”, but could the human race actually suffer a real internet meltdown? Could we endure a world without connectivity at the flick of a switch?
Early computer models were only able to interact with one another in localised scenarios, much like you are able to do using a LAN (local area network). The first use of the word “Internet” only arose in a 1974 paper, Specification of Internet Transmission Control Program, written by Vinton Cerf, Yogen Dalal and Carl Sunshine. It was used as shorthand for the term “internetworking”, which describes multiple local networks that connect together to make bigger international networks – a network of networks, as it were.
When we talk about the internet “going down”, it is this massive global connection we are concerned with. With the right tools, any small local connection can operate. But, if the links that connected these smaller networks together went down, then we would have a problem. It’s estimated that every website is just 19 clicks away from every other website, which puts into perspective just how condensed the internet can still be, and how devastating a large scale disruption could be!
A drab, grey building with no signposts or flashing lights sits due north of Canary Wharf in London–the London Internet Exchange (LINX). This building sits there anonymously, protected by more chain fences and CCTV cameras than an Orwellian dystopia. According to Matthew Prince, the CEO of CloudFare (a content delivery network), there are around 30 large internet exchange buildings in the world. They deal with incoming and outgoing traffic from various internet providers, helping to link up everyone from around the world. Prince notes that if one were to go down, regional disruption would be noticed. If all 30 were to be taken out, global internet would practically cease to exist. However, whilst this is a contingent possibility, is it extremely unlikely.
Another unlikely method of disruption is the cutting of internet cables. Whilst it may seem that the severing of a cable is the best way to break something (iPhone chargers, I’m looking at you) this was a concern already addressed by Paul Baran and Donald Davies, two engineers who simultaneously came up with the idea of “packet-switching”. Information is broken down into smaller segments, fired across a network of cables via any possible route, and reassembled. Even if a shark does try to eat an underwater internet cable for lunch, there are other routes that the information can take. Delays? Possibly. Full scale internet Armageddon? Not so much...
The London internet exchange Credit: Telehouse.net
A more dangerous possibility is that of “Border Gateway Protocol” (BGP) disruption. BGP delivers instructions on where information in the system should be sent, connecting devices (like your smartphone) to servers (like Facebook) via a series of routers. It has been discovered that the hijacking of destination information in these routers can simply undo all of this. Hackers could tell the information to go elsewhere, leading to possible theft of important information, or other unauthorised activity such as spying. It has been speculated that a large enough disruption of this kind could take down the internet in one go, and Vincent Chan of MIT has confirmed that although such a situation has not yet happened, it is still possible.
However, Chan also theorises that finding a single problem with the software of every network hub in the world is enough to hit them all at once! And apparently, it might not be all that difficult. He has found that disrupting data signals by placing a “black box” in amongst the electronics at remote, unguarded network junctions around the world could be an effective form of attack. These boxes would emit so much noise that the information would be totally uninterpretable, causing delays as the system slows down trying to reorganise itself and all the scrambled information. Do this enough times around the world, and it could cause havoc. Now, it seems like this is something that network companies would catch on to and rectify eventually, but what if it could be done remotely?
Direct Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks are similar to this, whereby so much information and traffic is sent purposefully to specific servers that cannot handle the sheer quantity that is incoming. This makes the servers crash from the inability to process everything going on. Although DDOS attacks are not currently able to wipe out the entire internet, they are getting bigger and harder to handle. If a number of these targeted the 30 exchanges around the world, and content delivery networks like Prince’s CloudFare couldn’t defend them by absorbing the sheer amount of traffic, who knows what could be taken down and for how long?
So the answer is yes, we can theoretically break the internet, and it seems there are multiple ways that destruction can be inflicted. None of these methods are large scale enough to take down our network of networks alone just yet, but perhaps we’ll one day see an attack that is overwhelming enough or that incorporates multiple methods of disruption in one go, and we’ll all be unable to tweet about it when it happens.