The internet is the backbone of modern American society.
Don’t believe me? Connected networks are required components for electrical power, public water, and natural gas monitoring and distribution. They also provide the means for manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers to track inventory and transportation. In addition, our public safety organizations depend heavily on networks to share information to administer safety and security. Your telephone is a miniscule node in a connected network. And if you’ve used a credit/debit card or ATM in the last 20 years, your money flowed digitally through the internet.
This is the first of a two-part article describing how deeply we rely on the internet, what our vulnerabilities are, and how our lives would look different if this service becomes interrupted.
Consider an internet outage
When many people consider an internet outage, it often evokes images of users not being able to access their Tinderbook or Twittergram accounts. Worst case, we have to take some time away from watching Huflix and ordering Walazon until the connectivity is restored. This view of our internet dependence is very narrow.
What is internet?
First, let us define the internet. The term internet is a portmanteau of “interconnected networks”, and is generally considered to amalgamate diverse networks of connected information systems (e.g. computers) into a monolithic global network. When one exclaims that “the internet is down”, the literal interpretation would be that every single information system on the planet has simultaneously shut down or disconnected, to include wireless devices and satellite systems.
So, what we consider to be an internet outage is actually a very localized phenomenon that fails to route packetized message traffic due to a variety of causal factors.
Why are internet outages important?
As mentioned above, most of our infrastructure and public utilities run on a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, which is network enabled in most modern applications. Electrical power stations conduct load balancing to distribute power throughout the grid. Water and natural gas distribution operates in a similar fashion. Mobile phones rely on internet routing to send communications between the various base stations. Cloud-based data storage connects a user’s device to a server farm in a remote warehouse. Even some traffic light systems are becoming network-enabled to increase efficiency in certain situations.
By this point, you should have an appreciation for how dependent we have become on internet technology. The fact that you are reading this article suggests that you, or somebody you know, is a regular consumer of internet services. This also applies if you consume any public utility (water, electricity) or make any financial transactions. The only Americans that truly have no internet dependence are those who have truly gone “off the grid”, using no fuel, telecommunications, or even GPS devices.
In the remote scenario where the “internet goes out” in an entire city for an extended period (i.e. greater than one hour), you now know what kinds of immediate impacts to expect, and the mass hysteria that is likely to ensue. Even the ability to reach out for assistance becomes difficult, so recovery and restoration is at risk.
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In the next article, we will explore what network vulnerabilities exist, how an attacker might exploit them, and what we can do in preparation. Until then, back up your data!