In our previous article, we examined why the internet has become woven into the fabric of our daily existence, and what some effects might be if this fabric becomes ripped. This article will take a closer look into how the internet works, what vulnerabilities might lead to internet outage, how to recover from outages, and what we can do to prepare.
How the internet operates?
Let’s start with a very basic description of how the internet operates. In its simplest form, a network can be comprised of two information systems (computers) connected by a cable. Using the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, there are seven conceptual layers that all need to function for this to be an effective network.
The first is the Physical Layer. In our simple network, this can be represented by the copper wires within a Cat 5 Ethernet cable. It provides the raw physical medium for electrons to transit the physical distance between two devices.
The second through fourth layers are the Datalink, Network, and Transport Layers. In simple terms, they provide the rules (protocols) for how data transmits between the two devices. Do voltage pulses represent Morse Code, or a stream of binary digits (bits)? Does “01000001” represent the letter A, or the number 65?
The fifth through seventh layers are the Session, Presentation, and Application Layers. At a basic level, these layers manipulate and translate the data for processing by the devices’ hardware and software.
Vulnerabilities that might lead to outages
The most basic way to prevent these two devices from communicating is simply to sever the physical connection. Without it, no information may pass. This can be an effective tactic to interrupt service to a single building, or prevent a supervisory system from monitoring/controlling multiple devices which share a routing node. Detecting this type of outage can be as simple as observing all devices simultaneously losing connection, and recovery would entail physical repair or replacement of the severed connection.
More sophisticated approaches target the data itself in one of the higher layers. Data may be corrupted at any point along the line through electromagnetic interference or internal tampering. It may also be prevented from reaching its destination through manipulation of the routing protocols. Dropped calls and garbled audio/video can be some impacts that the user sees, and it is generally temporary in nature.
Some of the most exquisite forms of cybersecurity attacks target the information systems themselves. One common tactic is overwhelming an information system’s resources with brute-force data transactions (known as a Denial of Service attack), which often targets web and data servers. Others include unauthorized access to information using false credentials, which is one way data is stolen or compromised. Modern intrusion detection and recovery systems automate the process of shutting down all access, and progressively reopening services with countermeasures in place.
Understaing the “Inter” in internet
The good news is that the “inter” in internet means there are multiple interconnected paths for information to flow, so there exist very few single points of failure in today’s networks. There is no single wire to cut that will shut down an entire city, nor is there a single password that grants access to the entire electrical grid. We build survivability through redundancy. Heavily-trafficked fiber optic cables are buried to prevent access, and information is encrypted multiple times. This country’s critical infrastructure and commercial leaders have invested billions of dollars into securing cyberspace, and only a dedicated effort from a nation-state can overcome our multiple lines of defense.
How to recover from outages
As individuals, industry has given us the best-practices to protect ourselves: rotating complex passwords, malware detection, and monitoring network traffic are our best tools to safeguard our personal data. The more effort we put into our own protection, the less vulnerable we’ll be.
And we can each do our part to reduce the overall demand for, and reliance upon, internet services. Download songs and videos instead of repeatedly streaming them. Shop local instead of online. Don’t use electricity that you don’t need. Check both ways before crossing at a green light.
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If the unthinkable happens, and we do experience a broad cyberspace attack that disrupts our essential services, you’re already equipped with the tools to survive while we restore our infrastructure. Keep essential supplies on-hand, maintain a fuel reserve, have some good books available, and invest in a good set of golf clubs. Learn to hunt, fish, and garden. Americans have thrived for centuries before we became web-enabled, and we can do so again if needed.
Now go change your email password!