Think about how often you use the Internet every day to communicate, check bank accounts and do other critical activities. Now, think about how disastrous it would be if the Internet just shut off one day. We're so reliant on the Internet nowadays that if someone was able to break it, we'd be in big trouble.
Could someone actually break the Internet? Theoretically, yes. One way they could go about would be to attack buildings like the London Internet Exchange, also known as LINX. LINX and buildings like it are the main hub where major Internet providers connect and exchange information. There are about 30 of these buildings in the world and if one was destroyed, it could have a serious effect on Internet traffic. However, that's unlikely to happen.
This sort of doomsday scenario isn’t very likely or feasible, though. These kinds of important internet facilities are extremely well protected, says Jack Waters, CTO of Level 3 – one of a handful of “Tier 1” network providers that are also crucial, because their big and resilient networks help form the backbone of the internet.
Even if several major data centers are knocked off line, the Internet would likely still keep on ticking. Because of a method call "packet-switching."
Their idea was called “packet-switching” and it describes a communications protocol that breaks messages down into small blocks, or packets. These are fired across a network via the fastest route available – whatever that route is – until they all arrive at their destination, where they are then reassembled. Take out one link in the network, even an important one, and messages can still arrive where they are expected by taking one of the many alternative routes.
So, the Internet is safe, right? Not so fast. There are other areas where the Internet is vulnerable, too.
Hackers could potentially break into the routers that tell those packets of information where to go and reroute them so that they never make it to the destination or are sent to the wrong place.
Hackers have found out other ways to take down individual sites on the Internet in the past. For instance, DDoS, or denial of service, attacks work by sending an overwhelming amount of traffic at a specific website or server to overload it and knock it offline. These types of attacks are often used by the infamous Lizard Squad hacking group. These attacks are more and more common these days, but it's unlikely they'd be used to knock the entire Internet offline.
The biggest threat facing the Internet today comes in the form of finding a single software flaw that could damage the entire network at once. If attackers could introduce that vulnerability into key points across the Internet's infrastructure, it would cause serious problems.
“In that case, it’s not a 1,000 point independent failure, it’s only a one point failure,” [MIT professor Vincent Chan] says. And Chan points out that there are methods of disrupting the internet that would be very hard to detect. In his lab he’s experimented with “splicing” a data signal and inserting high levels of noise. You could do this, he says, by going to low security junction boxes in remote locations around the world and simply putting a sabotaging black box between the electronics and the fibre optic cables.
Chan says this method might not shut down the Internet entirely, but it would introduce enough disruptive noise to slow down networks to a minute fraction of their original speed.