The keys to the internet

Here’s a reassuring thought: though there are ways people in individual nations can be forced off the web – ISPs being forcibly told to cease operations being the most obvious – to simply “turn off” the web as a whole is all but impossible.

Bruce Weber, professor of information management, management science and operations at the London School of Economics, says: “A scenario such as loss of internet services is nearly impossible due to the design of the internet, which relies on a highly decentralised, packet-switching logic to move data from one place to another. The loss of capacity in one part of the internet is handed by routing packets over longer but available links to the designation.”

In the event of a devastating cyber-attack on the DNS servers that ensure you go to the right website when you type in a URL, Paul Kane is one of six men across the globe that has the power to come to the rescue and restore the infrastructure.

For some, losing access to the internet would be "like what happens to a family when the mother dies"

The UK-based entrepreneur, who runs the Communications DNS internet security firm, is a Recovery Key Shareholder. If duty calls, he and five other members of the Domain Name Systems Security Extensions (DNSSEC) committee will be transported to a secret location in order to produce part of an encryption key to renew the system. He’s also pretty sure that the internet is going nowhere, calling a large-scale outage “very unlikely”.

“The design of the internet is very robust and resilient to any one element failing,” says Kane. “The whole is much greater than the sum of the component parts. In this industry one can never say never, but there are many safety mechanisms in place to try and mitigate any service disruption. If it was a deliberate act, the perpetrators of such acts would probably be tracked down and caught.

“You will understand I can’t go into detail, but rest assured that there are people, processes, equipment and technologies working to ensure the ‘e-world’ operates smoothly.” So turning off the internet like a tap is not easy. Oceanic cables which carry our connections under the big blue have been broken by earthquakes, but they can be bypassed, then repaired. Denial of service attacks have succeeded, but are by nature too localised and short-lived to cause serious concern.

Detonating nuclear devices around the world would do it. In that case, the electromagnetic pulse of the explosions would fry everything electronic. But not being able to fire up Safari on your iPhone would be pretty low on your list of
worries under those circumstances.

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