Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Great, something else to worry about!

The prediction in the PEW report that the most respondents agreed with was something I'd never even thought about before -- the possibility of a "devastating attack" on the infrastructure of the Internet itself.

I would not have imagined that such a thing would be possible, since the physical side of the Internet is servers, computers, network connections, and power supplies all over the world. Could a few targeted attacks to major servers cripple the whole system? Or could a clever virus spread across the Internet quickly enough to shut everything down? If these things are possible then I'm sure someone will try, but I would have guessed that the Internet is decentralized enough to be safe. I'll admit I don't know a lot about these things, though.

How do you think people would respond to a massive Internet blackout? When I was an undergrad we occasionally suffered a campus-wide loss of Internet service, due to physical problems with the cables connecting us to the outide world (we were located in a small town in the mountains). This was frustrating and annoying, but mostly because it deprived us of a valued source of entertainment. However, we knew that the problem was local and they'd get everything working again within a couple of days.

In the wider world I don't think there are yet many crucial services that depend on the Internet, so life could continue mostly as usual if there were an Internet blackout. Some people wouldn't have anything to do at work, but no one would die from it. My chief concern would be that people would panic if they knew something had gone wrong but couldn't rely on their usual source of instant, searchable news to find out what had happened. But if TV and radio were unaffected, the Internet blackout would surely be the big story on all channels.


  1. The internet is far more pervasive as a connecting device than most people think, and I think an incredible number of critical systems would be crippled without it. Social security and payroll checks are deposited electronically and controlled by a federal reserve banking system that is locked into the electronic backbone. Everything from gas pumps to the NIST clock live on the backbone and depend on online servers and routers to communicate. I am not an expert, either, but when you start to list the connections, I think possibly a chain reaction of failures could happen. But then, too, remember the hysterical hype around the Y2K change-over? A few systems failed, but IT people had years to get ready...

  2. A clever virus could harm some aspects of Internet usage, slow things down -- but there are so many redundancies, so many firewalls (literal and figurative) amidst the chaos and the gloom that I can't imagine it going "down."

    But I'd have to disagree that a slowing down of the Internet wouldn't be damaging. We may use it for entertainment (our cable modem was down for the past week, I was miserable, but caught up on some reading), but there is already a great amount of banking and other financial transactions that rely heavily, if not entirely on networking. Hospitals use the net to communicate drug allergies and interactions of patients -- many keep all their records on some intra-or extra-net.

    There was an old stat about how an Earthquake in San Francisco cause a world-wide economic depression if the finances run from there were down for a week or so. I doubt, with networks the way they are, that that would still matter. But extensive-long term damage to those networks?

    Anyway, this is all fun to think about, but again, I can't imagine any real-life threat to the "Internet." But then again 9/11 wasn't a threat to a vast vast majority of America, but everyone felt some kind of effect.

  3. The Network Infrastructure prediction seems to be a bit of a fearmonger. The internet is so vast and the network infrastructure is constantly changing and being updated. If an individual or group of people plan on attacking the system internally, they too would have to be constantly updating their plans. It would be never ending. A physical attack could only damage select areas to target. There would probably be a greater psychological impact if an attack was to take place than any physical or network damage on the global internet infrastructure. While an attack might be damaging in the short-term, our trust and dependency would have to be reconstituted. However, if the rest of the PEW Study has accurate predictions, our lives will only grow more dependent on interacting with the internet and an attack that's not even devastating initially might have massive results in the long term.

  4. This prevision is scary if it turns out to be true.
    I don't think there is any danger of electronic-virtual apocalypse. Better, I really hope there isn't one.
    But, who knows? Maybe it should be better to be preparated to that.
    Does anybody know if there is some kind of defensive system for the Great Net? I guess the network shape is the defence itself, but I don't know. There's maybe some sort of Internet core that could be damaged?