Monday, November 02, 2015

So Today's Internet Really Can Be Attacked Physically

Russia is scoping out Internet cables on the sea bottom (tip to Instapundit):

So, the Russians are at it again, snooping around the undersea communications cables that connect the continents. These fiber optic cables carry 99 percent of all transoceanic digital communication—phone calls, emails, web pages, you name it. They’re the reason you can Skype your colleague in Sydney or text with your friend in Mumbai. They’re essential infrastructure for the global economy. It’s no wonder, as The New York Times reported this week, that US military officials are not at all comfortable with Russian subs and spy ships “aggressively operating” in their vicinity.

Eight years ago, I wondered if all the focus on cyber-warfare didn't slight the real damage that physically attacking the Internet could achieve:

[If] I was in charge of the plans to take down the Internet because the enemy could exploit it more than I can, I'd knock out those thirteen critical computer sites--the chokepoints of the Internet--with regular ol' missiles rather than worry about training legions of hackers to overwhelm them with cyber-bombs.

When facing such a system as we have now that relies on thirteen crucial computer sites, using real bombs is the real way to knock out the Internet. People are getting so wound up in exploiting cyber-warfare that they forget that physical infrastructure is best destroyed by high explosives and not by hacking into the system and tricking the refrigerator and toaster to overheat and burn the place down.

I know that sounds so obsolete in our new age, but physical computers blow up real good.

After looking around and reading dismissals of the very concept of physically attacking the Internet, I partially backtracked on my worry that the Internet is vulnerable to physical attack:

The experts seem to think the Internet can't be sufficiently attacked physically to knock it down. Yet their confidence seems based on assuming that no attackers could attack enough of the Internet's physical infrastructure to knock it down. Am I missing something (and I certainly could be--I'm a history major with a computer and not a computer major who knows history), or is this logic a bit circular?

I'm not ready to take back my climb down on vulnerability. I think my brief research indicates the Internet is not as vulnerable as I thought. Still, the search for efficiency has created vulnerabilities that have only been counter-acted by the massive growth of the whole which has created redundancies from sheer size, it seems.

But I'm not convinced the Internet is as robust as it needs to be. And if I was an enemy of America, I still think I'd devote more attention to physically attacking the Internet in time of war rather than trying to hack the system down.

Yet the Internet founded on redundancy for survival in a nuclear war has been transformed into a major commercial infrastructure where efficiency is more valued than redundancy, no?

At the very least, the ocean-crossing links in the Internet are vulnerable to physical attack. And as the Internet evolves for commercial purposes, I imagine it will be even more vulnerable to attack in more ways. I wonder if those 13 critical computer sites I noted in 2007 are more or less important now?