Remember when Anonymous threatened to destroy the entire internet? We laughed and ultimately their words were just hacker hubris. But it got us thinking — could someone actually destroy the internet?
Giz Au Editor’s Note: Yes, some of this article is rather US-specific, but then the internet is a global thing. Also: No, we’re not saying you should destroy the internet, at all. Read the whole article and this will become clear.
We did some digging, and guess what: with enough effort, the entire thing can be shattered. Physically. Completely. Here’s how to kill the internet.
Before we destroy mankind’s greatest, vastest machine, let’s get something polite out of the way: don’t. Destroying the internet’s core infrastructure would constitute the greatest act of global terrorism in history and/or a declaration of war against every sovereign nation in existence — to say nothing of the danger it would put both you and others in. This is a thought exercise.
So put on your thought exercise caps and come with us on a journey across the world. Let’s figure out how this could possibly be done. Let’s figure out exactly what it would take, what cords to rip — because the internet under attack is an oft-invoked idea. What would true defeat really mean? What would the web’s downfall even look like? Where would it happen? Core parts of the internet have been (digitally) assaulted before — and there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen again.
The first step on this trip is mental. We need to begin by no longer treating the internet like a ghost. It’s made of more metal, plastic and fibre than you can fathom — and it’s spread across the whole world, a monster machine that hugs the entire globe. So we hunted down the web’s physical foundation, across land and see, to pinpoint exactly what you’d need to take out. Hypothetically. It turns out, Anonymous’ threat isn’t insane — just the way they talked about doing it. You can’t destroy a signal while using it; the internet’s destruction requires analogue violence, not some beefed up DDoS strike.
We always think of threats against the internet as cyberwarfare or some abstraction, virtual to the point of meaningless. But this is mostly bluster and software-mongering. The enormous, invisible truth of the internet is that it’s enormously strong. There’s no main switch, no self-destruct button, no wire to be snipped for an easy blackout. The internet, through a mix of chaotic serendipity and brilliant planning, is redundant to the point of near invincibility. Like a fibre optic hydra, you can hack off great expanses of it, and the thing will keep chugging. It’s smart, almost self-sustaining, able to repair and reroute its paths from one continent and country to another, making up detours on the fly. This happens from time to time. Alan Mauldin, an expert with internet infrastructure analysis firm TeleGeography, rattles off a few recent instances:
In February, two of the three cables serving East Africa were cut in the Red Sea. It impaired connectivity for some customers in a few Eastern African countries, but most folks were smart enough to have capacity on multiple cables on both coasts. There have been many cases of multiple cables damaged in the Med., Red Sea, and South China Sea in the past 5 to 6 years. The Japanese tsunami last year damaged a lot of cables – yet, the Internet connectivity to Japan was relatively unaffected due to multiple restoration options.
The internet: tsunami proof.
But for all its durability, the internet isn’t immortal. It’s strong because it was built to be strong. And because it was built like you’d build a monument or bench, it can be destroyed. Just like every other physical thing on the planet. We think of it as a crystal cloud, an inexorable force of the cosmos that runs on its own, as susceptible to destruction as gravity. But let’s get one thing straight: With enough effort, you could destroy the internet as thoroughly as a tree chopped straight through. The thousand-headed beast can be decapitated in full, not just hindering it, but slaying it. You just need to know where to start slicing.
Cut the Cables
Forget wireless. The internet exists because of hundreds of thousands of miles of thick, old-fashioned cables. Hundreds upon hundreds of undersea, intercontinental cable lines, criss-crossing around the world, are what put your tweets onto a monitor in Pakistan. As mentioned, the cables are wired to back each other up — when one fails, another picks up the slack. But hey — what if you snipped them all? The internet is a network of networks. The laptops in your house, the desktops in your office, a server farm in Moscow — they’re all wrangled together by these byzantine cable connections. Kill the connections, and the networks can’t speak across oceans. The internet is instantly fractured.
Here is every single internet cable in the world.
Don’t take TeleGeography’s word for it — they’re aggregating data given out freely. Feel free to ask the US Federal Communications Commission, which mandates a (publicly available) licence for every single cable that touches US shores. These servers, like much of the internet’s vulnerable innards, are an “open secret,” explains Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Here’s the latest list from their end:
They’re sometimes disguised or partially buried. But sometimes they’re just lying out on the sand like an abandoned boogie board. “They’re supposed to be buried,” explains Blum. “But often the ocean has its way.” For those times when the cable still remains below the beach, you can use an industrial line tracer like this one to find the right spot. Dig ‘er up, and then go to town.
We asked the burly crew at Best Made, crafter of damn-fine axes, what they’d recommend for cutting through the internet’s backbone, and how much elbow grease it’d take. Naturally, they recommend using an axe:
Looking at the make up of the cable and it’s diameter, I’d say a half dozen swings maybe less, provided they’re accurately placed and the cable is held securely on a sturdy surface. The toughest part of the cable would most likely be the polycarbonate sleeve, everything else I think would succumb to the axe fairly readily.
Although the exact location of many of the cables and their onshore landing stations are kept a secret by private corporate owners, many aren’t — in fact, they’re found on popular beaches and bustling towns.
Here are two cable spots that, according to TeleGeography, would be the most devastating if destroyed. Striking a node like this would only result in slowdowns and setbacks, not total annihilation. Sites from across the ocean would be immediately inaccessible — many others would be so slow as to be unusable. The internet still runs — confusedly and very slowly — but this is a good start.
Sites like these link America’s eastern seaboard with western Europe and serve as some of the most dense, crucial infrastructure points in the world. Get these out of the way, and you’ve made a good dent into the internet’s guts. Global finance is now over, leading to an instant worldwide financial collapse — sorry. Skype is broken, as is every other means of talking between continents over the internet. You can’t email your friends abroad. You can’t order Barbour coat from the UK. Tweets from the Middle East are stuck there.
The other most crippling attacks would be executed as follows, using the list of towns and beaches above:
Egypt (both on the Med and Red Sea)
SW United Kingdom
The internet is now no longer global — every continent and island is, well, an island. The most basic part of the internet is scooting data anywhere around the globe in an instant. That’s over now.
Ruin the Root Servers
“Google.com” is a crutch. Typing in a domain name actually translates an obscure numerical identifier, the IP address: 188.8.131.52. And there’s no way you’re going to remember 184.108.40.206, along with tens upon tens of other such numbers for every site you visit each day. This is how a network of machines is usable by us puny, finite humans.
Compare: “Hey, check out Twitter.com!”
Versus: “Hey, check out 220.127.116.11!”
You get the point.
There are 13 servers, labelled only by a single letter, backed up hundreds of times over, that are responsible for decoding _________.com (and .net, and .org, etc) before serving up the corresponding IP address. Knock these machines offline, and the alphabet isn’t part of the internet anymore; if you want to navigate what’s left of the web, you better have a pad and pencil, or an extremely good memory.
So how would one find and destroy these servers? Like the cables that feed (well, fed) them, the servers are also an open secret. In order for them to be any use at all, they have to be absolutely transparent — the web is worthless unless it’s a free orgy of interoperability. And the best way to make sure everyone gets theirs is to just make the details of the root servers — and their locations — public. It just takes the tiniest amount of digging.
Let’s say we want to obliterate the “K” servers, operated by a company called RIPE NCC. Go to its website, and from there it’s as simple as scrolling across a Google Map. Oh, here’s a server located in Miami. Click on it — it’s located in the NAP of the Americas data complex, which a simple Google search will point out is located at 50 NE 9th St, Miami, Florida. You can take the 6 bus straight there. But if you’re going to wipe the place out, be prepared for security — these places are guarded like Nazi bunkers to make sure nobody enters without a damn good reason.
The M server array, operated by the WIDE Project, has a location in Seoul. Their website will show you the way — here’s a Google Street View pic to make things simple.
Security tends to be around the clock, but not always — and it’s mainly to keep strangers from wandering inside and pushing the wrong button. Destroying the building that houses these servers would be the same as blowing up any other building that doesn’t contain the vital brain shards of the internet.
Repeat this process for every other server array — you can find a master list here.
Destroy the Data Centres
What have we accomplished so far? With all the cables cut, the internet is landlocked, broken up into a handful of tiny internets that can’t talk to one another. Messages can’t be sent around the world anymore. Hell, Japan is completely isolated. After demolishing the root servers, web addresses are reduced to incomprehensible code numbers. The destruction of the internet is ready for its coup de grâce: blow up the boxes that hook what’s left together.
Data centres are unassuming buildings filled with servers that host the websites we browse, the emails we read, and the vault of lo-res Facebook photos you racked up all through university. They’re enormous, often windowless structures that aren’t designed for people. They’re houses for computers, not flesh — they’re often dark most of the time — to keep them cool, and because computers don’t mind working without lights on. But they’re vital to the people who want to sprint through the web, allowing your ISP to link up with the rest of the internet. Some of these centres in particular are mega-hubs, “public internet exchanges”, open bazaars of ISPs from every corner of the globe converging on one floor of one building. All of the lines hitting one point. Remember that axe? Yeah.
New York City’s 60 Hudson Street facility, owned by a company called TELX, is a global destination — what Times Square is to glass-eyed tourists, an internet Babylon:
On the 9th floor of 60 Hudson, a 15,000 square foot facility known as the Meet-Me-Room is the convergence point of multiple layers of local, national and global fibre optic cables. This is where each carrier’s server, storage, and networking equipment resides as well as arrays of optical, coaxial or copper terminations which allows the carrier’s “colocation units” to connect to other networks through a series of connection panels. This physical hub of the Internet, essentially a gigantic Ethernet switch, is powered by a 10,000 Amp DC power plant.
Wreck this floor, or even the building itself, and the entire region’s connection starts crawling — the performance of the internet around the world would take a hit. Not only that — websites themselves are erased. Companies use these data centres to outsource their storage, meaning every photo or song you’ve ever uploaded, for example, could vanish once you start wrecking wall after wall of servers. If your ISP plugs in at one of these junctions, you might lose your home access altogether — severed at the source.
There are centres like 60 Hudson sprinkled across the globe, and eradicating the gear inside each would cripple the web stretching in every direction outward.
Here’s your hit list for the earth’s super data centres — the last punch you need to break what’s left of the net’s spine:
With all this gone, the web is all but dead. If you wanted to be thorough, the rest of the planet’s less important data centres can all be pinpointed and blown to hell.
Now data is entirely frozen. Nothing can get anywhere, because all the roads, bridges and traffic lights are in ruin. All that’s left of the internet is your office intranet, or the file-swapping in your dorm. The tiny shreds. There are nets, but none of them are inter.
Congratulations, you’re the world’s biggest arsehole.
But remember, to do this, you would’ve just completed the single most complex, sweeping act of destruction in human history. But with anything less, the internet would still be kicking.
And that’s what makes it so impossibly damn strong. Nobody will ever be able to pull off thousands of attacks around the entire planet at once, with one coordinated blast and chop. Unless you had a team of tens of thousands to strike everywhere at the exact same time, repairs would outpace destruction — this isn’t a job for a lone wolf. Short of a thermonuclear apocalypse — which would lead to some bigger problems than Facebook downtime — we just can’t damage so much stuff spread so widely. We just built it too well.