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Open Letter to G8: What Happens When the Internet Breaks?

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Of all of the questions that arose during my participation at the EG8 in Paris, a forum to advise G8 leaders on the future of the Internet and Connected Society, this one really rattled me and I suspect it might rattle you too because it affects us all even if it sounds like the plot of Die Hard 4:

On a panel on Internet and Society, Danny Hillis, co-chair of Applied Minds, asked if G8 leaders planned to discuss the internet's very real vulnerability to attack. When his question was sidestepped by the moderator, I followed up with Mr Hillis along with Cyber Activist and EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow to dig deeper. What I found out is far from comforting.

What Happens When The Internet Breaks?

We don't know how long it would take to get the internet back up and running if an accident or a malevolent attack occurred.

What we do know:
  • World-wide phone systems would go down. People couldn't communicate at a distance without a ham radio or carrier pigeons.
  • Trucks full of rotting food without the ability to navigate would sit stagnant.
  • We'd lose access to everything we've stored on cloud computers.
  • We'd all have to travel by foot and horseback, at least for a while.

Imagine the chaos if even one of these scenarios came true.
How vulnerable is the internet to such a break-down?

The internet has already gone down twice. The second time it happened, Hillis was present. In 1988, Cornell University student Robert Tappan Morris created and released the first internet worm -- the Morris Worm -- which he insists was not written to cause damage, but rather to detect and fix internet bugs. According to Wikipedia, "a computer could be infected by the Morris Worm multiple times and each additional process would slow the machine down, eventually to the point of being unusable".

Could that happen today? Could the internet break down for a third time? Yes, without doubt, confirms Barlow. What we should be worried about, insists Hillis, is the very real possibility of a main server attack or an operating system attack where a virus could go into every PC running Windows in the world. After all, despite its recent decline, PC's still dominate the world market.

"A break-down is almost certain if the internet's vulnerabilities aren't addressed."

Barlow also warns of a potential attack on domain name services so that you couldn't see what IP address corresponds to what dot com. But addressed by whom? No one person has the keys to the internet. We can't just reboot if and when there is an attack or an accident. The point isn't that the internet would go away, rather that we have no idea how long it would take to bring it back up. With our increasing dependence on the web and cloud computing, and the prevalence of smart phones, you might be thinking that no one has the incentive to create such a worm. But what if it were an accident, like we saw with the Morris Worm?

When I asked what we could do to prevent the next internet breakdown, both Hillis and Barlow shrugged and laughed at what seemed like a very scary inside-joke:

"Turn it over to a harsh government!" laughs Barlow, shaking his head with cynicism. "The G8 surely has this under control. There are 8 of them after all! The U.S. has a cyber-security tzar, how can they not be on top of this?" scoffs Hillis.

G8 or no G8, shouldn't we address the internet's evident vulnerabilities BEFORE it goes down again or will we be known as the generation that just shrugged it off? You decide.

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