Could We Destroy the Internet?
Groups like Anonymous often make grandios claims about being able to take down the entire Internet, but what would it really take to destroy the greatest creation in the history of mankind?
It’s time for a little thought experiment. What would it take to destroy the internet? Certainly, it is possible; after all, nothing lasts forever and there’s no such thing as a completely secure system, but what would it take? Obviously, Anonymous’ threat to destroy the internet is purely hubris and adolescent bravado, but with enough effort, physical effort, the Internet could be completely destroyed. Before continuing, I need to remind all of my readers that this is simply a thought exercise. Attempting this would bring the entire world’s wrath down on your head, and would be the greatest act of terrorism the world has seen. It would most likely be seen as an attack against every nation on the planet, simultaneously. Do. Not. Do. This.
The Internet has been under attack for most of its existence. Key pieces of infrastructure have been attacked before, and there’s no reason to suspect that attacks against any and every target available will not continue to happen. But one thing needs to be clear: the Internet will not be taken down from the inside. It is impossible to destroy a signal while using that same signal. Eventually, your attack would defeat itself, and a small portion of the Internet would survive unscathed. What must be done is that the concept of cyberspace being somehow disconnected from the physical world has to be stopped. Everything that happens on the Internet, from banking to video watching to gaming, is transmitted as electrical pulses through physical wires and is processed by physical servers residing in a facility somewhere on the planet. There is no such thing as a separation of what is “real” and what is “digital.”
The other problem is that the Internet is insanely strong and redundant. There is no big red button sitting somewhere that will shut down everything around the globe, no wire that could be cut to blackout the entire network. Through some chaotic twist of fate and the effort of brilliant planners and engineers, the Internet is practically invincible. It’s almost self-sustaining in its ability to repair and reroute traffic from destination to destination based on congestion, damage, or attack (insert Skynet joke here). Occasionally, damage does happen to the major backbones of the Internet, but few people notice because of the amazing amount of redundancy in this global network.
Despite this, just like I said earlier, there is no such thing as an indestructible object, completely secure system, or invincible defense. Even the Internet, which was built with redundancy and strength in mind, could be destroyed, given enough effort. The issue is where to start cutting wires. Yes, wires.
The Internet exists as it is because of hundreds of thousands of miles of cable have been laid across the globe over the past 30 years, running under the seas and between continents. These cables are all laid so that the loss of one specific cable does not affect the network as a whole; instead, the traffic is simply routed through another cable. But if every one of those cables was cut simultaneously, the Internet would instantly be fractured into continental networks, each unable to communicate with the others. A list of every cable backbone in the world can be found here.
The biggest impact could be had by cutting just three connections, those being the main lines between America’s eastern seaboard and Western Europe. These cables are some of the most important pieces of infrastructure in the world for the Internet, with more than half of all internet traffic travelling along them. The bigger impact, however, is the kind of traffic travelling along these cables, namely financial data. The stock exchanges in New York, London, and across the world rely on these cables for all of their information. Cutting them would instantly result in a worldwide financial collapse the likes of which we have never seen. Some other important links that would cripple the Internet are located in the following locations: Singapore, Egypt on the Mediterranean and Red Seas, Cornwall, Tokyo, Hong Kong, South Florida, Marseilles, Sicily, Mumbai, and Chennai. This would render the Internet as virtual islands, unable to communicate across more than a continental level.
The next step would be to destroy the root DNS servers. There are thirteen of these servers, each labeled with a single letter and backed up hundreds upon hundreds of times, which are responsible for turning a request such as “www.google.com” into the IP address 184.108.40.206. Without these servers, either you had better have a steel-trap memory, or a very large notepad and lots of pencils, because human-readable addresses would no longer be translatable by computers connected to the Internet.
Each of these servers’ locations is an open secret. In order for everything to function properly, the Internet has to be completely open and interoperable. The easiest way to ensure this is to simply make all of the details public information. For example, a little digging will reveal that the “K” servers are operated by RIPE NCC, and located at 50 NE 9th Street, Miami, Florida, right on the 6 bus line through the city. Be prepared for Hollywood-esque requirements to destroy the place, however; the server buildings are guarded as tightly as military bases in order to make sure that anyone going anywhere near the servers has a VERY good reason to be there. Most of the security exists simply to keep the general populace from wandering in and pushing the wrong buttons, however, and bringing the building down on top of the servers would be just as simple as bringing down any other building.
Now we have a network fractured into relatively small, isolated pockets (sorry, Japan, you’re completely isolated now) with servers only accessible through arcane IP addresses. However, the finishing blow has yet to be delivered: destroying the servers that house what’s left.
Data centers contain the stuff that makes up the web: the sites we browse, the pictures we see, the emails we read, and the videos we watch. They’re large, windowless monoliths designed not for the system administrators that take care of the servers, but the servers themselves. Dark, cold, and often hermetically sealed, these buildings exist to keep the servers cool and operating at peak efficiency. The bonus for our thought exercise is that some of these centers house servers from ISPs all over the globe, acting as a kind of “super-hub,” with lines from all over the Internet converging on these buildings.
What’s worse is that companies often outsource to these data centers for storage for their websites. There are hundreds of data centers around the globe, but taking out a few dozen would render the Internet practically inoperable, along with the added bonus of the complete removal of some websites, songs, videos, pictures, and anything else stored on a server “in the cloud.”
At this point, the web is in tatters. Nothing is left that can be called an “inter” network. If you wanted to be thorough, you could annihilate the rest of the data centers, every office building, and every file-sharing network in colleges across the country, but for the most part the Internet is dead.
Congratulations, you have successfully destroyed mankind’s greatest creation. Jerk.
On the upside, you have proven yourself to be an amazing leader, because in order to pull this off, you had to complete the single greatest, most complex, surgical act of destruction in all of recorded human history. Anything less and the Internet would still be alive and capable of being rebuilt. And that’s what’s so amazing about the Internet, and what makes it so impossibly strong. It would take a team of tens of thousands to strike every location at once with an insane amount of precision, coordination, and communication. At this stage, we have built the internet so well that, barring a global thermonuclear war, we cannot destroy the Internet.
But it’s an interesting scenario to think about.