Internet Crash: 6 Unthinkable Scenarios

August 29, 2013

Discovery News

If you’re reading this, you’re on the Internet, and we have a question: Is it getting a little scary around here lately?

In the span of just a few short weeks, marquee online entities like Google, Twitter, The New York Times website and even the NASDAQ stock exchange were hit with disruptions and extended outages that sent worrisome ripples through cyberspace. The disruptions were blamed on technical glitches, and possibly hackers, with some reports suggesting a coordinated attack by a pro-Syria cyberterrorist organization.

For those prone to a kind of low-grade ambient paranoia, the outages suggest a grim scenario: Are these events equivalent to the flickering of house lights before a massive blackout descends? Could a large-scale disaster or attack take down some — or even all of the global online network? That is to say, is it possible for the Internet to crash?

But with an entire industry dedicated to cybersecurity issues, is it even conceivable that a virus attack could really cripple Internet access in the United States? “It would be very complicated, but it’s possible,” said Stephen Haag, professor in residence in the Department of Business Information and Analytics at the University of Denver.

“Because of the distributed nature of the Internet and the number of redundant backup systems, an event would have to target a number of network service providers,” Haag said. “These maintain the infrastructure or backbone of the Internet. If one fails, then Internet traffic is simply routed among hundreds of other paths to get to its destination. So the event would have to cripple many NSPs.”

Let’s say the unthinkable happens and somehow, some way, the Internet crashes at midnight tonight. What would tomorrow look like?

“A huge Internet blackout would bring almost every electronic activity to a grinding halt,” Haag said. “No planes flying in the air, no stock market, no electronic payments. Just think of every system that relies on the Internet. The average American relies on the successful operation of over 250 computers per day. And most of those are connected to the Internet and need Internet-based communications to work correctly.”