With frequent high-profile reports of sites, or even entire networks (Amazon AWS 2017) being shut down by hackers, it does beg the question: Can a hacker shut down the entire Internet? After all, if you can shut down Amazon, the CIA, or Twitter, could not a more wide scale, total blackout of the Internet be a reality?
Answer: Not really, and here’s why.
The Internet was designed to be resilient. In fact, the first vestiges of the Internet go back to the 1960s and the ARPANET and later DARPANET projects commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department. The initial objective was to develop a network of computers that could survive a nuclear attack. As such, redundancy was no afterthought. It was aforethought. Today this interconnectivity exists as the TCP-IP (Transmission Control Protocol – Internet Protocol), commonly known to today as simply the IP protocol.
All said, there are three areas where the Internet is vulnerable. The first one is rather recent, about ten years old. The Cloud. When Amazon AWS was shut down for nearly a day back in 2017, all its customers, primarily small businesses, but not all so small, who decided to put all their web services on AWS, went down too.
Tier-One ISP Backbone is where we are most vulnerable.
There are tens of thousands of ISPs (Internet Service Providers) out there but only a handful provide the backbone of Internet connectivity. In fact, most of the smaller ones are reselling services they purchase and rebrand as their own, typically from a bigger fish that makes their money from volume. Nothing new here.
But the big boys like AT&T, Comcast, Level 3 and Verizon are so vast in the amount of traffic that goes through them that if just one of them went down, 20 to 40 percent of the Internet would go down with them. And nobody really knows if the stress on the other backbone providers would provide a domino effect. So at least theoretically, the Internet could go down for a brief period. But theoretically only. These backbone providers invest billions each year to maintain and upgrade their resilience and redundancy. Actually, these backbone are probably the most redundant systems the world has ever seen. Arguably, not even the Space Shuttle had as much redundancy. So while theoretically possible, the bigger concern is hackers actually hacking their way inside the backbone. No one has ever succeeded in doing that. You’d probably have a better chance of hacking the CIA’s site than you would one of these backbones. The reason is that these companies all preceded the Internet as telecommunications backbones back when telephony was our most treasured and sophisticated communications network. In other words, our backbone providers have decades of experience in providing the most robust security standards, some of which will likely never be made public.
Aside from site hacking whereby one website is compromised due to a deliberate hack of that site, systemic outages either originate from cloud hacking or DNS (domain name service) hacking. DNS providers are basically the folks who manage where your domain points to. In other words, if you own thisismycompany.com, you must tell the DNS where that domain is hosted via IP. So the DNS not only knows your domain name but also tells all other computers the IP (or computer address) where it can actually be found. For fun, you can actually find a website by typing in its IP address only without the actual domain name. What this means is that if a hacker can mess with the IP address it can become a major nuisance, in effect, making your site unreachable while at the same time it is technically functioning. A bizarre state where your Internet browser cannot resolve the multiple redirects that the hacker assigned to say a cloud, like what happened when Amazon AWS went down.
Okay. So a complete shutdown of the Internet is not likely, just like a complete shutdown of our entire power grid. But put that into perspective. Remember when New York City lost power for several days back in the late 70s? Such a moment is a cautionary tale of how we need not a global shutdown of the Internet to be catastrophically impacted. Just imagine if New York City’s Internet went down even for a day. Everything would come to a screeching halt, not just electrical power. Everything. Banking, Gas stations, grocery stores. And if you don’t have a full tank of gas you wouldn’t be driving anywhere either. So despite the Internet’s truly global reach, a localized complete outage would all-encompassing. As a civilization, we have never been so dependable on technology as we are right now. All previous “blackouts” are not adequate comparisons for this very reason. As such, it wouldn’t hurt to have some extra food and water around at the very least.