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A Sign of Things to Come?

It happened just last week—two undersea cables in the Mediterranean Sea were cut, disrupting Internet service in two continents. More recently, a cable that provides Internet links between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates was damaged. No one at this point in time knows whether these events are somehow related, or for that matter also whether the cables were deliberately or accidentally damaged.

The reason that these events caught my attention is because I have predicted that for the first time in its existence the Internet will go down completely this year, at least for a few hours (if not longer). There is little doubt in my mind that a number of individuals and groups would love to accomplish this “feat” for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which in my mind is information warfare-related motivation. I suspect that in particular adversaries of the US would want to bring the Internet down because of the US’s huge role in the development and maintenance of the Internet. Additionally, think of all the fame and glory that would go to the perpetrator(s)—after all, computer criminals who have done far less lamentably continue to receive a considerable amount of undeserved media attention. Other potential perpetrators are likely to view the prospect of taking down the Internet as a kind of experiment to be performed. Still others may imagine opportunities for financial gain.

The question in my mind, however, is thus not why an individual or individuals would want to bring the Internet down, but rather how they would accomplish this sordid feat. One obvious answer is that someone could cause massive damage to physical components behind the Internet such as under the ocean cables. Doing this would not be easy because these components are usually literally in the depths of the sea. They are also widely dispersed geographically. A group of well-financed and highly motivated individuals would have to work quickly, efficiently, and with a high degree of coordination. Even if they were successful in cutting every major cable, it is not clear that the Internet would go down completely, because there are secondary links that can still move packets even if the primary links have become non-functional. Alternatively, given that only a few vendors’ brands of routers are used to move Internet traffic, someone might try to widely exploit a few serious vulnerabilities in these devices such that they came to a standstill, thereby causing the Internet to become non-functional. This, too, would not be a trivial feat to pull off, but given that physical access would not be necessary, this scenario seems more plausible than one in which major cable links are cut.

If and when the Internet is taken down, deleterious aftereffects are inevitable. Many businesses are virtually completely dependent upon the Internet; if it goes down, their losses will mount quickly. Similarly, in some settings operations very much depend on 24 X 7 availability of the Internet. Although it is tempting to focus attention on the fallout that complete disruption of Internet functionality is likely to bring, it is more important to focus upon what we all can do to minimize any negative impact that an event of this magnitude is likely to make. This is where business continuity and disaster recovery come in. Although literally hundreds of thousands of business continuity and disaster recovery plans have been written, I seriously wonder how many of them cover large scale scenarios in which the Internet is taken down altogether. It is thus essential to ensure not only that such plans have been created and kept up to date, but also that they cover what might in many cases be the ultimate disaster scenario of them all – the entire Internet going down for a while.

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