Are the walls we have built around this precious network in 30 years strong enough to protect it?
We have built so many systems on the internet to manage our water pipes, electricity distribution, banking, food supply chain, commerce, social networks and many more, it’s almost impossible to comprehend that the World Wide Web wasn’t publicly available until 1991.
While building all these systems, we have also been trying to secure the internet due to the value it holds since the beginning. Despite all the efforts and investments to secure it, on July 17th, 2020 most of the sites we know were down for 27 minutes, an eternity to the average internet user, as Davey Winder from Forbes puts it.
Shopify, Discord, GitLab, and also Medium were not accessible almost for half an hour from many locations around the globe (Forbes, 2020).
The initial idea that appeared in most of our minds was a coordinated cyber attack to take all these sites down at the same time. What a big operation it must be, right?
Later the official announcement came from Cloudflare CTO John Graham-Cumming that the outage was due to a configuration error in their backbone network. Plainly it was a fat finger error that took almost 50% of Cloudflare’s network and many global sites with it (Cloudflare Blog, 2020).
Imagine the scale of the disruption caused by a human error, supposedly by a well-intentioned Cloudflare employee. Now think about how worse it could have been if it was an ill-intentioned hacker, who had gained access to employees’ rights and left non-recoverable damage on many of the sites that build up most of the internet traffic?
About Most of the Internet Traffic
When we have a glimpse at internet stats, there are over 1.7 billion websites on the World Wide Web today, and of these, less than 200 million are active (Internetlivestats.com, 2020).
Although 200 million may still look like a significant number, the majority of internet traffic is actually occupied by a few famous sites, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, etc.
Let’s take it one step further, you may even be thinking that though the internet may be standing on the legs of few sites, we should all be safe since those few sites must be quite robust with their billions of dollars of valuation and limitless resources, right? Well, I have some bad news.
The internet may not be as distributed and safe as we think. Any internet company is as powerful as it’s the weakest wall, and a breach on it doesn’t have to come with a hammer-like cyberattack. It may well just be a small social engineering trick that gives unimaginable access to hackers.
On One of Those Hacks
Around the same time, the Cloudflare network was down, Twitter was hacked, and many high profile accounts, like Elon Musk, Barrack Obama, Joe Biden, were taken over.
According to Twitter, the hack was a result of coordinated social engineering to hijack some employees’ access, who were likely to be responsible for the verified accounts.
Maybe we were lucky that the hackers have only used this enormous power of owning the voice of influential business people and elected officials to run a Bitcoin scam and collected money from those who fell for it. However, this doesn’t change the fact that they could have triggered any global scale political discussion or, in the most pessimistic scenario, lead to a possible WW3 by acting as the account owners and cause non-repairable damage.
Also, as Twitter said, the direct messages of 36 accounts were accessed in the security breach. So we don’t know what the hackers may be holding against these people and if they had something to hide from the public eyes in their message boxes (Washingtonpost, 2020). This possibility is a severe danger that paves the way to threats or bribe requests.
What if Some Countries Unplug the Internet?
Building upon it, the dangers to the internet are not only limited to malignant hacks. Autocratic politicians are a significant threat, not smaller than hackers nowadays.
It’s common knowledge that some countries like China have already built their intranet rather than being fully connected to the World Wide Web and controlled the web traffic in and out of the country from day one. Still, these private networks are not exclusive to them.
Even fully connected to the global internet today, some countries may choose to leave open internet infrastructure in favor of a closed network in which they can easily manage what their citizens will access.
Last December, Russia has already experimented with a country-wide alternative to the global internet and told that no end-user was affected, which means they weren’t even aware of the tests (BBC, 2019).
The moment this experiment becomes a reality, Russia will have the power to manage all the traffic in and out of the country. Unfortunately, even VPNs, as the best tools of going around autocratic governments, will lose most of their functionality in a fully closed network, and we’ll all depend on what our governments see a fit for us.
It was truly priceless to be part of a global network to share, observe, witness simultaneously from different spots of the world. And I don’t claim that every country will go to their national networks and only interact with some global platforms at their governments’ will in the short term, but there is a trend difficult to ignore.
On the bright side, most of the Western countries don’t seem to be willing to give up from the remarkable benefits of being part of a global network yet. Being connected with the world for trade and communication all the time is way more profitable than closing the doors. Therefore, it’s still not the majority of countries that want more control and less equity in the global network for the time being.
To Wrap It Up
The internet, as we know, may have been more centralized and more vulnerable than we think. It may also be under serious threat from political risks. However, no danger is greater than people’s willingness to connect, interact, and learn from each other globally.
The internet can improve to be more decentralized, hacks can be prevented, and we can always tear down the walls and build more bridges.
Till next time!
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Cloudflare outage on July 17, 2020
Today a configuration error in our backbone network caused an outage for Internet properties and Cloudflare services…blog.cloudflare.comMuch Of The Internet Went Down Yesterday: Here’s The Reason Why
It’s not been the best of weeks as far as cybersecurity goes. A critical Windows Server worm emerged that caused the…www.forbes.comRussia ‘successfully tests’ its unplugged internet
Russia has successfully tested a country-wide alternative to the global internet, its government has announced. Details…www.bbc.comTotal number of Websites
There are over 1.5 billion websites on the world wide web today. Of these, less than 200 million are active. The…www.internetlivestats.comTwitter CEO apologizes for hack, confirms some private messages were accessed
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said Thursday the company “fell behind” in some of its security restrictions that led to the…www.washingtonpost.com
This article is originally published on Medium.