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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Day The Internet Stopped

Imagine not just a slow connection, or a browser or server needing a quick reboot, but no internet at all. 

The internet was once a relatively small community based on trust with little need for security and reliability. The internet of today is vastly more complex but is based on the original building blocks. This is now concerning some who were actively involved with the early days.

Take away the internet and it’s not just getting an instant credit check that stops. Airlines would stop flying, power and fuel supplies would be disrupted, and logistics would struggle to get medical supplies to hospitals or food to supermarket shelves; assuming anything could still be produced. For much of the world everything relies on the internet being there to send and receive information. The light bulb that never blows.

But the internet is actually quite fragile and has grown far beyond what it was originally designed for. A couple of years ago a large amount of all the traffic on the internet including potentially sensitive US security data, got routed through China. China Telecom said it was an accident - and this was actually plausible because the internet structure makes it relatively easy for this to have happened accidentally. This is because the internet relies on a network of routers that route the traffic across the globe like postal sorting depots. These routing servers exchange information with each other on the fastest routes for traffic to take to get to its destination. But even a small error in the code in a core router can result in wrong routing information being spread across the internet.

To illustrate the point, in the early days of the internet one router processor got a bug which resulted in a message delivery time that was a minus figure, in other words it appeared able to deliver a message before it was received. Not surprisingly that made it the fastest router on the internet! All the other routers on the internet tried to put their traffic through that one router until everything collapsed, and the internet had to be turned off while it was fixed.

The basic structure remains the same today. But turning the internet off today is not an option. Only a few weeks ago the biggest cyber-attack to date slowed down the internet by flooding the network until domain name servers were overwhelmed worldwide.

Years ago First Report credit reports were sent by post or fax. The internet is certainly amazing and the change in the way we work and communicate has been staggering. We now take it for granted, but we shouldn't.