The Internet is going to collapse: the question is when

What if one day the servers of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Netflix and the rest of the internet giants where most of the online traffic circulates? What if, by contagion, the fade to black also affects the banking service, travel reservation centers and online booking platforms video calls to which we have become so accustomed during the pandemic? What would it be like to live without being able to send or receive ‘e-mails’, telework, operate with the bank, buy a train ticket, watch a series in our favorite platform and open the mobile every minute to discover that we have disabled data access?

“After 48 hours without internet, we would go from worry to chaos and panic, with inaccessible critical services and growing supply problems,” says Esther Paniagua


The idea of ​​a global drop From the internet it sounds like an apocalyptic dystopia more typical of science fiction than reality, but we would not have believed anyone who had warned us of the pandemic six months before it occurred. Unlike the unforeseen collapse caused by Covid, more and more voices are being heard warning of a more than likely general collapse of the network. The journalist Esther Paniagua publishes next week the essay ‘Error 404’ (Debate), whose subtitle launches a challenge: “Ready for a world without internet?”. After interviewing a multitude of technologists and experts in cybersecurity, the researcher is conclusive: “It can definitely happen. The million dollar question is when,” she warns.

1. Is a global network crash possible?

In retrospect, the coronavirus pandemic has been warning since the beginning of this century. Epidemics of SARS-CoV-1, 2003, and MERS, 2012, were previews of what came next. To continue with the simile, the tests of the great collapse of the network that some experts predict would be all the small falls that have been taking place in recent times in a multitude of services and internet firms.

This year, until the recent Facebook debacle, the biggest scare ‘online’ had been suffered by the Government of the United Kingdom, Twitch, Amazon, Reddit and the newspapers ‘The New York Times’, ‘Financial Times’ and ‘The Guardian’: due to a computer error caused by the technicians of the cloud computing company that services them, Fastly, their websites were inaccessible for more than an hour on June 8. One month later, on July 22, a failure of the online service provider Akamai left half the internet in the dark for another hour. Among its victims were multinationals such as Amazon, PlayStation, Airbnb and HBO, as well as several airlines, banks and online gaming platforms.

This Monday, Twitter users made fun of the misfortunes of the clientele of Mark ZuckerbergBut on October 15, 2020, just almost a year ago, those same tweeters showed less desire to joke after spending more than two hours without being able to tweet due to a technical glitch. In the fall and summer of 2019, this platform had already suffered similar setbacks. Not even the almighty Google has been spared the blackouts: on December 14, 2020, widely used services such as Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, or Google Maps remained inactive for an hour due to a technical failure, a blockage that the search engine and its service had already suffered. mail on August 20 of that same year.

These small incidents resolved in a matter of hours and limited to a series of digital services could be the canary in the mine What warns of a larger-scale collapse? “The internet is one thing and the web is another. Taking down the network is very difficult, because it is very resilient and it will always find a way to continue working. But a massive attack on the pages and services that monopolize most of the traffic, or a cascade failure of these websites, they are possible scenarios. I fear that we will not be aware of this eventuality or its consequences until it occurs “, warns the internet expert Andreu Veà.

1. How would it be produced?

In ‘Error 404’, Esther Paniagua lists up to “five paths to the blackout”, but not all are equally likely. “A bug or attack on the protocol BGP deciding how data travels ‘online’ can cause a cut of several days. This is how the US security agency (NSA) completely disconnected Syria for two days by mistake in 2012 “, highlights the researcher, who also points to another crack in the network that could leave the population cut off:” Through the domain name system DNS you can boycott the internet for days. One such error wiped out all the websites in Sweden in 2009 and some servers took several days to recover. ”

The official version offered by Facebook to justify the fall this week points to a human fault, but cybersecurity experts fear more of a malicious attack than to a web design error to venture what the great fade to black of the internet could be like. “An easy scenario to imagine is a denial of service attack (DDoS). It consists of making requests to a server from millions of computers that have a Trojan installed until the attacked server collapses. Happens daily with a multitude of companies ‘online’. The tech giants have good systems to defend themselves, but no firewall is infallible, “he explains. David Sánchez de Groeve, head of cybersecurity at an international bank based in the Middle East.

Cover of ‘Time’, after the breakdown and accusations that Facebook prioritizes profits over security.

The 2019 Annual National Security Report of the Government of Spain pointed to a possible cyber attack as the greatest vulnerability facing the country, and understood that a hypothetical pandemic was the penultimate possible threat. Then what happened happened, but that diagnosis was understandable: that year, Spain had been the victim of 36 critical cyberattacks.

But the network’s greatest weakness is not cybernetic in nature, but physical. “It would be enough cut submarine cables fiber optics through which most of the traffic circulates to cause a major collapse. It is the true Achilles tendon of the internet “, warns the technologist Rafael Merino. In his book ‘Orwell World: manual for living in a hyperconnected world’, the Air Force colonel and cybersecurity expert Angel Gómez de Ágreda It recognizes that currently the great powers have military means prepared to “attack these cables and cut off the communications of the adversaries” if necessary. “Right now we are in a permanent state of war, but it is not fought in a physical way, but cybernetically, “acknowledges the military man.

3. How would we live it?

Our progressive dependence on ‘online’ services forces us to imagine the day of the widespread internet blackout as a day of real nightmare. No network related activity would be possible. “Day 1 would be a bad day, because we would spend it worrying about our work in the cloud, trying to find out what happened to the bank transaction that we had pending and upset because our connected devices do not work and we cannot do tasks online. But I It worries more on day 3 “, indicates Esther Paniagua on a hypothetical prolonged fall of the network in the time.

After 48 hours without internet, we would go from worry to chaos and panic, with critical services inaccessible and growing supply problems. It would be a wild version of the problems that we are seeing in the United Kingdom after Brexit or of the shortage of products that we saw in the first days of the pandemic, “adds the researcher.

The experience most similar to a generalized fall of the network was lived in Estonia in 2007, when a cyberattack directed from Russia returned the most digitized and hyper-connected country on the planet to the pre-internet era for days. “That was a lesson for global cybersecurity. Since then, no country has the idea of ​​connecting basic services to the network like energy, water or defense. If the internet goes down, we won’t be able to buy a plane ticket, but the airports will continue to work, “emphasizes Sánchez de Groeve.

4. Is the Internet reliable?

The decentralized structure of the internet is, apart from its main identity feature, its greatest safeguard. “The Internet is like a road network. We can cut off the main roads, but there will always be a way to go from one point to another by taking a detour”, Rafael Merino graphically explains. However, that mesh architecture is increasingly deficient. “The Internet tends towards a monopoly and there are fewer and fewer actors responsible for greater data traffic and for offering more ‘online’ services. This is a danger, because attacking those few agents it is possible to do a lot of damage, “says Andreu Veà.

Internet is supported on 13 root-servers distributed throughout the planet that provide service to all servers on the network. Without them it would be impossible to use the internet. Cybersecurity experts acknowledge that attacking these 13 top nodes is next to impossible, but the others are more vulnerable. “For this reason, large companies and companies that offer critical services to the population must have contingency plans to face an eventual attack. If the fall is unavoidable, the important thing is to restore the service as soon as possible”, highlights Jorge Chinea, responsible for cybersecurity in reactive services of the National Institute of Cybersecurity (INCIBE).

5. How to protect yourself against a global crash?

Users have few tools to prevent a cyber attack That ends up taking down the whole internet or a large part of the network. However, they can take steps to reduce the effects of that blackout. The main recommendation appeals to common sense: if an internet crash prevents us from accessing all the content we have in the cloud, the prudent thing to do would be to keep a backup of those files.

“But you do not have to make a single ‘backup’, but several, in different formats, from hard drives to DVD or paper, and stored in different places,” warns Andreu Veà, who puts himself as an example of this precaution: his book ‘How we create the internet’ was published on paper, but not in digital format. “The 21st will be remembered as a black century because there will be no records of our activity. Within 100 years, all the tweets, posts and ’emails’ that we have written will have disappeared, but my book will continue to be available,” explains this technologist.

In the opinion of David Arroyo, CSIC cybersecurity researcher, the eventuality of a generalized internet failure should lead users to consider a different relationship with the ‘online’ services to which we have become addicted. “Preparing ourselves to live without the internet implies learning to search for information outside of Google, having our digital resources within reach without having to go to the cloud and keeping our contacts in an analog way, outside of social networks. It is about recovering the network that previously formed part of our day to day. Preserving the old is, today, the best way to protect our autonomy “, warns the expert.


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