I regularly read different news and commentary sources that are relevant to prepping. One such resource, which is perhaps not so well-known among preppers, is a blog by Bruce Schneier: Schneier on Security. He covers new types of computer and internet-related crimes, national security, privacy, terrorism, airport security, home security (e.g. the internet of things), and similar topics. And since our world is highly-computerized, the posts are often of interest to me as a prepper.
A recent article by Bruce is particularly alarming: Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet. Schneier is a top security expert. He has reliable sources in the security industry. He knows what he’s talking about, and he doesn’t make sweeping sensational claims without good reason. So I believe him. Someone, or rather some organization, is putting a vast amount of time and resources into gaining the capability to take down the internet worldwide.
Schneier believes it is probably China, or else Russia, that is to say, the NSA-equivalent agencies in one or the other of those nations. But he is not sure on that point. It could possibly be another nation, since these types of attacks are done using proxy servers in various locations around the world. As they say in the movie ‘Hackers’ — “You don’t hack a bank across state lines from your house.” So we can’t be sure who is doing this.
Can It Be Done?
Some commentators to Schneier’s post expressed skepticism that the internet could be taken down. Well, it’s never been done before, so skepticism is justified. But it is possible in theory.
First, there are 13 root domain name servers which control the association between a domain name in words (whatever.com) to its actual internet address (123.456.789.012). Here’s the list of who controls those 13 servers. Take down all 13, and your browser might not be able to find the site you would like to visit (whatever.com). However, many ISPs cache a copy of the domain name information. This speeds the lookup. So in reality, much of the internet might work.
On the other hand, there are many other points of attack. A nation with vast intelligence and computer resources could attack the internet backbone, which includes the main computer networks and core routers through which most of the internet traffic travels. And that strategy might be more effective. The result would be an internet traffic jam.
Imagine an attacker blocking the main highways in and around one city. In theory, you could travel anywhere using surface roads. But the number of cars attempting to do so, when the highways are blocked, would quickly turn those roads into a parking lot. The same thing would happen with the internet. Take out the main networks and routers — using malware, zero-day vulnerabilities, distributed denial of service attacks, etc. — and the rest of the net can’t function.
Finally, a third method of attack, if the attacker were a determined and particularly malicious nation-state, would be physical: cutting undersea cables that carry internet traffic internationally, attacking locations on land that are hubs for internet traffic, and who knows what else.
So it is conceivable that a nation could learn how to take down the internet. And given the right motivation and the right political circumstances, said nation could virtually shut down the internet, at least for a time.
What Would Happen?
What would happen if the internet were shut down for an extended period of time? I’ll suggest a few possibilities, but we can’t be entirely sure, since it has never happened before.
1. All teenagers will suddenly look around, and, not being used to seeing the world without a smartphone in front of their face, they will not recognize the places and people around them. “Yes, we are really your parents! Hold your phone up next to our faces. See?”
They will also be suddenly unable to entertain themselves without texting and instagramming and tweeting and such. I suggest acquainting them with old-style non-video games like Parcheesi and Backgammon. They will initially be horrified, so try to be patient and reassuring. Or just send them outside to play. They will wander around the yard, confused as to what “outside to play” means.
2. Stores might not be able to take credit cards or checks. As I understand the current system, the authorization of credit cards and checks is now done over the internet. No net means no credit cards. Cash only.
Can you go to the ATM for cash? Nope. Those devices also work over the internet. You would have to physically go to the bank, and withdraw cash. There will be a run on the banks, and they will not have anywhere near enough cash, nationwide. Most commercial transactions are based on credit, debit, or checks — non-cash transaction. There simply does not exist enough physical currency for the nation’s economy to work.
3. Your paycheck could be useless. See #2 above.
Your employer can’t pay you in cash. And checks will not be useful. The bank might physically accept the check, but without an internet connection, they won’t be able to deposit it into your account right away. Computers will still work, but they won’t be connected to one another. That means the whole process will be slowed. And since banks don’t have the personnel for handling transactions in this way, it will be another type of traffic jam. It could be weeks before your paycheck is credited to your account. And then you still won’t be able to withdraw cash from that account.
4. Travel will be adversely affected. You can’t Uber or AirBnB without the internet. Your travel agent can’t book you a flight without the net, and you certainly can’t book the flight yourself. Commercial airline flights can fly, but they won’t have many passengers. Perhaps people could go to the airport in person and book the flight. Maybe, maybe not. It’s hard to say.
Shipping via UPS and FedEx and USPS will become much more difficult. They rely on the internet to organize their shipments. It will be physically possible to ship stuff, but taking down the internet will throw a monkey wrench in the whole process, which will at least greatly increase shipping times. And there will be no tracking of packages. Cross your fingers and wait.
5. Given the above considerations, an economic catastrophe would result. You don’t have to shut down the economy completely to cause a financial disaster. The economy is like a major highway. All you need is enough of a disruption to cause a figurative traffic jam, and the economy will be slammed.
Goods will still be shipped, bought, and sold. But the slowing of this process will cause food and other necessities to be available in much lower quantities than is needed by the population. Grocery store shelves will be empty. Why? because the internet was disrupted, thereby disrupting travel, shipping, finances — which are all related to the food economy. People will go hungry without the internet. And no one seems to realize that we have become so dependent on the internet that these types of indirect consequences will occur.
Yes, if the internet is shut down, it will cause a major SHTF scenario with catastrophic consequences for economics, travel, communication and food.