Is The Internet Really Going To Be Shut Down In 2017 As Predicted?
Oh, the internet. The precious utopian land of free-thinking, no-holds-barred opportunity. In a few clicks, you can buy your groceries, transfer money from bank to bank and back again, stream Frank Ocean's new album, download pirated movies for free (beware, this is frowned-upon) and order all sorts of chemicals on the darknet (also frowned-upon and pretty illegal).
Can you imagine life post-internet? Whatever you're picturing, it's probably grim. And you're not at fault to think something miserable – without the World Wide Web, you'd have to take up a physical hobby or something. Ergh.
First launched to be used for information-sharing between a handful of users, the web has gloriously been connecting users all over the globe since 1991, when it first became available to normals like us. Opportunities became endless almost instantly (in historical terms – it didn't swell to its current size in a millisecond); innovative-for-the-90s web browsers were popping up, images were uploading, media was streaming... Now the noble net is a built-in component of our everyday lives.
In hindsight, this special structure of networks was always doomed to be hacked, manipulated and destroyed. And with political chaos brewing in all areas of the world – especially online – some say it's only a matter of time before it is.
In 2016, one of the biggest cyber hacks to date shut down corners of the net for multiple hours. Though the event went widely unreported, in October a group of still-unknown culprits took offline some of the internet's most major websites, including Netflix, Twitter, Spotify, Soundcloud, Reddit, Pinterest and newspaper sites including the Guardian.
Dyn, one of the organisations that control the internet's domain name system (DNS) was overhauled in a distributed denial of service (DDoS) by the mystery clan – Hacktivist group Anonymous claimed responsibility for the attack, but with a lack of evidence, it cannot be confirmed – rendering many platforms and services unavailable to users in Europe and North America.
This is a staggering example of how fragile the seemingly-robust internet can be, and sets a precedent for what might be to come in the future.
The colossal attack has had such an impact that internet security sceptics and specialists are predicting another, far worse, attack on the internet this year. It might be a bleak outlook, but when it comes to the internet, which our societies now rely on for nearly everything there's everything to lose.
American security intelligence agency LogRhythm's chief information security officer and vice president James Carder recently told Business Insider that this year is the year shit is going to hit the digital fan, so to speak. "In 2017, we’re going to see it hit big sometime, somewhere. If the internet goes down, financial markets will tank," he said, raising a few eyebrows along the way.
He reckons 2016's cyber attacks were merely a "test" for what will happen this year when big-time hackers may shut down the internet for 24 hours. According to the internet security specialist, cyber-attackers may try to gain back some control from mainstream news outlets spurting clickbait and fake news by "knocking down a major media outlet or two." Carder also thinks smartphone users could expect a mass-hack with personal data held hostage for blackmail for money.
But could 2017 really be the year the digital beating heart of society sees a total shutdown for an extended period of time? And what would happen if the workings of the internet actually do disintegrate before our computers?
Hacktivists, are they capable?
"[The] prediction that the internet will shut down for a day, causing global chaos, is an extremely bold one that, while not entirely unfeasible, is highly unlikely to come true," Lee Munson, security researcher for technology comparison and reviewing organisation, Comparitech.com, told Konbini.
Munson is well-versed in critiquing cyber security initiatives, and isn't short of criticism for LogRhythm's bold claim. He tells us that last year's cyber attacks may well have been a test and a prelude to something much bigger "in theory". However, in practice, "leveraging a significantly larger botnet for a hugely amplified DDoS attack against more targets would be beyond the capabilities of a nation state, let alone any criminal gang or terrorist cell."
And if the motives were large enough? According to Munson, large websites that have been attacked in the past, usually are because the hackers are trying to make or prove a point. "Nowadays the likes of Twitter and SoundCloud are likely taken down by criminals looking to extort 'protection money'" from such websites as a sort of ransom for not attacking them again. Not as dystopian as we thought, is it?
True, an attack so huge would be an arduous task. And yet, where there are political tensions, seen with the previous shutdowns of newspaper websites like the Guardian – the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have also been targets – the motives seem to be strong enough. If hacktivists feel that media sites "have misrepresented the news, or 'taken sides' in a debate they feel strongly about," Munson says, they will then single out those sites.
Again shattering all my expectations that the world is about to implode on its soon-to-be-offline self, Munson reiterates that a global 24-hour internet outage is just "not going to happen". Despite what we may think of genius hackers, most of them can't perform such an action. And, in Munson's words, not by a long shot.
But, as any human born before the prosperous post-truth world would know, we aren't the only ones with capacity to commit mass-destruction.
Real, living people are not the only forces with power to upend the internet. As Werner Herzog investigated in his 2016 documentary on the internet's founding and future, Lo and Behold, the destruction of the web's structures is, if not imminent, inevitable. Central to the film is an investigation into the potential dangers of the internet, with one chapter exploring how intense bursts of radiation from the sun known as solar flares could fry satellites or wipe out entire networks.
While Munson is sceptical of the abilities of rogue humans to end the net, he hints that should "physical internet infrastructure be targeted en mass", a full outage would be possible.
Because of this (along with worrisome consequences of internet-reliance), Lo and Behold questions if we can live so contently with the knowledge that we'd be hopeless as societies if the internet was to be lost. After all, we are reliant on it for even the smallest of tasks – my phone lets me order wine, warns me if it's going to rain, and alerts me when I'm due on my period. With that in mind, even if it is unlikely that the whole internet will be shut down in totality, it'd be impractical not to consider that the internet – as with anything – could be taken away from us at any point, with little notice, due to solar flare, trolls or far-reaching security breaches. And when we gaze into our smartphone's black mirror more than our lovers' eyes, surely we should plan?
As one scientist asserts in Lo in Behold, "if the internet shuts down, "people wouldn’t be able to remember how they lived before.” And he's right. There are already citizens of the world who can't comprehend an existence without the internet. They even have some gross demographic labels: post-millennials, the iGeneration. Our collective nouns might be more forgiving, but even those of us who spent childhoods without Snapchat, Google and wi-fi would find it hopeless to adapt post-internet. So what should we be expecting (or dreading)?
Looking for networks
An internet shut down could have monumental impact not only on your selfie-posting and joke-tweeting capabilities, but on global economies. One of the worst outcomes is that a full shutdown would purge universal funds. Government-enacted shutdowns last year prompted losses of $2.4bn (£1.9bn) mostly affecting India, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, Republic of the Congo, and Pakistan, but that's not all. According to news agency IPS, after these 81 short-term shutdowns spanning 19 countries, human rights violations and the limiting of free speech, such as election coverage, were possibly affected.
"What we have found is that internet shutdowns go hand in hand with atrocities," explains Deji Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at digital rights organisation Access Now. He added that people die during these sorts of blackouts where reporting comes under strain, and in some areas there has been "consistent blocking of social media and internet" with averse consequences.
"If the internet did go down for 24 hours, all doom and gloom scenarios would likely come true," agrees Munson. "The financial markets would melt down, aeroplanes would have to be flown by wire and not GPS, society would be better for it, and millions of people would have to talk to each other instead of looking at Facebook all day."
It's a depressing prospect if you do spend a significant portion of your day on the web. But it's not one to cry in the shower about. Now post-truth is king and clickbait is queen, the internet's purpose is already obscuring, and we've barely noticed. Perhaps, in this über-fast culture, we're already able to adapt to leftfield happenings on and offline.
If we are underprepared, though, what precautions does Munson advise we take? Where websites and servers are concerned, he says the best way of coping with an internet outage would be "through business continuity planning – incorporating alternative methodologies and technologies – and a well-practiced disaster recovery routine."
As for you and I, as we preempt a possible internet shutdown, the most sensible action for us to take – instead of frantically downloading Norton anti-virus and clearing our web browser caches – is to take a deep breath, have a sip of tea, and with open eyes watch the real world's chaotic events unfold. Who knows, this way you might find a hobby to take up once the internet's gone.
By Lydia Morrish, published on 17/01/2017