How a simple Internet failure could bring a city to its knees–or far worse

The next ‘big one’: not an earthquake, but a collapse of the digital network that’s become central to our lives

Breakdown: Experts say few people realize how vulnerable society has already become

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It’s early on a weekday morning, in the not-too-distant future, and a packed commuter train is speeding toward a large North American city when the Internet cuts out. It’s more than just an inconvenience for riders checking their email. This train and the tracks are part of the Internet, too—fitted with computers and sensors to monitor and control the location and speed of trains, and linking every bit of transport infrastructure across the continent to the web. With the system disabled, the train is suddenly out of control.

In the city, the water supply system, automated and synched to a central, digital command centre, also fails in the Internet outage. Switches—built to shut off water when there’s a leak—spring into action and taps everywhere run dry. Above ground, the online network linking every car, truck, bus and taxi malfunctions, as do the sensors that turn lights red and green depending on traffic flows, plunging roads into gridlock. Police cars, ambulances and emergency services, each reliant on the city’s suddenly blacked-out information network, remain parked and useless.

Across the city, people are locked out of (or even in) their homes. The web-enabled security systems that people use to lock and unlock their doors have also failed. At the grocery store, there’s no way to buy food without cash: Internet payment systems go black.

This is the next “big one.” Not an earthquake, but a collapse of the digital network that is increasingly becoming a critical part of day-to-day life, linking together every item and service we use. And while such a failure may sound improbable, security and technology experts say that few people realize just how vulnerable society has already become.

The Internet is now being wired into everything. Cisco estimates 50 billion “things” will be linked to the web by 2020. “When I walk around the street, all I see are networks,” says Cisco senior vice-president and head of the company’s enterprise networking group, Rob Soderbery. “Every electronic billboard, every roadside sensor, every toll booth, every vehicle, every truck, every police car. Think about everything you see in that daily life as being integrated into the network.” Networked trains, web-enabled cars that rely on downloadable software fixes, and smart homes that are run via iPad are already a reality. “Everything around us is acquiring CPUs and communications,” adds Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University. “Pretty well everything you buy for more than 10 bucks and don’t eat or drink will be ‘smart’ in some sense.”

We have already seen how even minor glitches in these systems can cause big headaches. In 1999, Internet service, phone lines, payment systems and traffic lights across a large swath of downtown Toronto crashed for a day—all because a technician at a Bell switching centre dropped a wrench, which started a fire, which also brought down power to a hospital and stripped an estimated $1 billion in trades at the Toronto Stock Exchange.

In the past year alone, a cut cable triggered a Sprint Internet outage that grounded Alaska Airlines flights in the western U.S., payment processing problems brought down Visa services in Canada, and Netflix’s hugely popular system crashed due to a software bug. Last week, American Airlines’ entire fleet was grounded for hours due to a glitch in the company’s reservation system.

Malicious attacks are just as common, targeting everything from newspapers, including the New York Times and companies like Telvent, which provides control systems for Alberta oil and gas pipelines. In March, a hacker attack simultaneously crippled South Korea’s main broadcasters and biggest banks, and earlier this month, police in Egypt arrested three men who were allegedly trying to sabotage a critical undersea Internet cable.

Last October, the U.S. secretary of defense said American infrastructure is vulnerable to a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” “This is the pre-9/11 moment,” Leon Panetta said at a gala in New York. “An aggressor nation or extremist group could gain control of critical switches and derail passenger trains, or trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”

The risks of a breakdown (whether by simple failure or sophisticated hacker attack) are rising exponentially as more services are shifted to the web. Cloud computing, in which companies outsource hardware and some software needs to server farms all over the world, was a $60-billion industry in 2012, says the research company IDC. Microsoft’s cloud-computing customers reportedly include Aer Lingus, Dow Chemical and the University of Georgia. The New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ use cloud computing. Even governments are getting on board: Canada has been examining ways to grow reliance on cloud computing, and in March, reports surfaced that Amazon is building a “private” cloud for the CIA.

But cloud computing, like the rest of the digital world, has its vulnerabilities. The European Union’s security agency, ENISA, issued a report this year warning that cloud computing is a double-edged sword. “If an outage or a security breach occurs, the consequence could be big” across critical sectors like finance, energy, transport and even government services, the report cautioned. It called on the EU to monitor attacks and require companies to report outages and security breaches. Andrew Rose, a security analyst for the research firm Forrester, has argued that this hyper-networked future will lead to “unprecedented security challenges.”

Carlo Ratti, the director of the SENSEable City Lab at MIT, argues the nature of security challenges is not changing, just their effect. “The impact of possible security breaches can be more devastating because it’s not only digital, but it’s digital and physical,” he says. “If your computer catches a virus, you might not work for one day. But if your car, which is getting more and more like a computer on wheels, catches a virus, just a simple one that switches the pedal with the brake, then you’re in trouble.”

Given the speed that our reliance on the web is growing, we may not grasp the risks until it’s too late, Ratti says. But governments are trying. Leon Panetta’s fiery warning last fall was followed up with a cybersecurity executive order from U.S. President Barack Obama, announced during the state of the union address in February, which will result in sharing information between public and private sectors to increase cybersecurity.

In 2010, the Canadian government allocated $155 million over five years to beef up cybersecurity efforts, much of which went to the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre (CCIRC). But last year, a critical report by the auditor general found that the centre, seven years after it was formed, “cannot fully monitor Canada’s cyberthreat environment” because various departments and companies aren’t fully co-operating with the centre, or even aware of its mandate. There’s a “tremendous fragmentation” between government departments and industry, which hold the Internet traffic data, and the CCIRC, which needs access to it, says Rafal Rohozinski, one of the country’s leading cybersecurity experts.

The audit didn’t examine the government’s response or recovery plan for a cyberattack, which alongside earthquakes, floods and pandemics falls under the public safety department’s Government Operations Centre. Rohozinski questions whether there is such a national plan for a massive digital failure. He says Canada “lags behind” other nations.

At a cybersecurity conference in October, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told delegates his government has “worked closely with our partners to enhance the resilience of critical infrastructure like power grids, financial systems and transport networks.” Meanwhile, the CCIRC doesn’t even operate on a 24-7 basis—it’s open 15 hours, seven days a week. Rohozinski says Canadians are blind to their reliance on this infrastructure. “We don’t realize our dependence.”

Other countries do. Thanks in part to the Stuxnet virus, which infiltrated an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010, “Iran has a better overall government plan for dealing with cyberincidences than does Canada,” he says. But waiting for the “big one” in order to act carries its own risk. “What’s going to be the effect of a catastrophic effect in cyberspace?” he asks. “No one knows.” But it’s pretty scary to imagine.


How a simple Internet failure could bring a city to its knees–or far worse

  1. Yeah I wouldn’t be able to read the Maclean’s blog. No thanks to Canada, we’ll have Bill Gate’s metal batteries, or whoever tries the other metal battery sandwich layers. Or we’ll have lithium or nickel batteries. I suppose we mine the stuff…
    High speed rail was a Liberal platform. We aren’t getting HS rail; you get an airport commute and AGW instead.
    Without the internet I’d have trouble remembering my own jokes.

    • All the stuff will be self-contained. Infantry, insect drones, autonomous chemical weapon mortar rounds. Biotoxin bioreactor vessels. Everything.

      • I guess after the first blip, first-responders will buy short wave radios. Hopefully they will have battery cars and we will have, at least when we vote out the Evangelicals, wind and solar power. It is too bad they cut back on the 4th Die Hard because of 9-11. It sucked as an internet attack really does nothing but force me to buy books. I guess it would be a while before S.Korea and Silicon Valley stamp out some replacement chips. I suppose China is stealing from Vancouver IP and Russia from Halifax IP, already. I guess there will be more IP theft in the future??

        • Someone spelled cybersecurity wrong. In the 3rd world, such an attack would cause people to die of exposure and would cripple long-distance education.

          • The reason we don’t have wind and solar is our MSM (minus Torstar and CBC). Duffy and S.Harper’s blocking of wind turbines, looking for a mentally ill UK woman likeness here (brain injuries caused by sound waves or something). Vestas only has a $3B market cap; if they weren’t dumb Christians, AB would just buy Vestas and expand the manufacturing jobs here (blades made with renewable thermoplastics soon). There are only 90M Evangelicals in the USA, not 190M, so society will be fine from this risk. How do we get 2250AD gene therapy without 2050AD bioterror? Maybe we can still do some good in this nation that invented insulin, stem cells, and had the most advanced allied WWII biotech.

  2. The internet and engines are two very different things. Is Crosby playing game 1??

    • There are playoffs? Who knew? Who cares?

  3. I see someone watched Die Hard 4 over the weekend…

    • Keystone needs a reality check. Next thing you know he’ll start droning on about that quasi end of the world mindset, The Rapture.

      • I was actually thinking of Westwood. As I read the article I had a distinct sense of deja vu and kept seeing Willis and that guy from the Apple vs PC commercials.
        Let’s just hope there’s a real-life McLane in the wings when it all comes crashing down.

  4. Perhaps Ms. Westwood will interview someone who knows something about networking before she writes another article. She has little or no understanding about any of the technologies and has not proposed any credible failures which would support her wild thesis.

    Pick ten (or a hundred) cables and cut them. Shut down the switches they link. You can’t possibly cause the “Internet” to fail. Even if you were to shut off half of the root name servers, the network would run, albeit slower in a few areas.

    Quoting politicians (who are raising alarm to obtain funding) or vendors (who want to receive money from purchases) or researchers (who … from research grants) is not that useful.

    • I agree, (see my comment above) but also, what if people who don’t know what they are doing, cut budgets or make architectural decisions that do pose a public threat? Who is making sure these departments are well funded enough to do things right? I usually massive swat down scare mongering, but this made me think, how do we know good architectural decisions are being made? And do we have to scaremonger to get them to listen?

  5. What irresponsible hypebola. Y2K all over again. The net is just that, a net with redundance. If one fails, the other links remain available. Many things connect to the internet, but the connections both ways are limited. Just like in a city I pass other people. Rarely one might kill me. But just me and a few others linked. Otherwise life goes on even if my internet and email fail for day or so.

    Granny Arby

  6. I think she is talking about future , near future . we are old generation and we have our BCP in place some where in our mind or little bit also practicing , but she is right to say that new generation is so reliant on new technologies that they might suffer , off course one internet failure cant hurt as explained above , but in future it seems to be like this . may be in next 20 years , the technological development would lead world to a point where conflicts may arise on little mis understandings . I wish we would live a simple life without the fun of smart phones .

  7. Hi originally I was going to attack you a bit, for scaremongering, but in actual fact, I think you’ve hit on a good point, but perhaps I can clarify it a bit further.

    Any government service that is critical to peoples lives, should not run (exclusively perhaps) on the public internet. If there is a point of failure, then you will just have to implement your own data transport network, with no single point of failure, and run exclusively and securely over that. It will be very expensive, but it means you can add as much redundancy and infrastructure as you choose to. Now, that cost is probably prohibitive for all but the most secure and essential services, so then you can choose to run some data, still very securely, over the public internet. If it goes down for a bit, or for a section of a city, nobody should die. That should be the rule of thumb I guess.

    The example where the employee dropped a hammer is an example of a single point of failure, and this should not have been possible to happen. Again, it’s a cost thing, not an inherent problem with technology. This also isn’t a security issue, or a cyber warfare issue or anything like that. If you take the right steps in your digital strategy you can minimise risk + threat. The problem is, under budgeted people will make mistakes. You have to be certain critical tasks are managed well.

    It comes down to the fact that people are looking to cut costs everywhere, and so mistakes get made.

    Hmm. So I suppose the point is, do we need to use scare tactics in order to make sure that country leaders put the right budget aside for doing things right?

    • I call it a scare tactic when an unexplained ‘everything is down’ event happens. Real world networks are designed so that there are few single points of failure. You do not have rail systems that lose control of moving trains because some messages are not getting through. These systems are designed to stop safely and they are designed with redundant message paths that will not all fail at the same time. You need an evil genius with a ring of satellites firing ray guns to bring everything down at once. The Greeks called that deus ex machina (Latin?).

      Some systems will fail with multiple failures at once but the more important infrastructure uses multiple backbone networks from multiple providers. All you have to do is spend enough money and explain why the money is needed to prevent failures.

  8. Anyone who comments that this article is scaremongering, is someone who read the facts and found them unpleasant; those people might want to decide to do something to change the facts rather than simply whine about the unpleasantness. Ms. Westwood certainly didn’t portray terror — most of the content is quotes from a wide variety of people. I think it’s a good laundry list, and it’s good to point out dirty laundry that might be accidentally or purposely hidden.

  9. All the major US govt. agencies have been warning that the infrastructure that is based or soon will be based on wireless technology is vulnerable to accident or attacks. Former CIA director James Woolsey said that it is a matter of when (not if) something takes the grid down and we are in the dark ages for a long time — not weeks or months. Homeland Security and others area begging for the grid to be secured, but the money or the will is not there. After the US put the stuxnet virus in the Iranian radiation system the door is open for others to do the same thing. We must stop this expansion of the wireless grid without the thought and care that is required. The corporations will not spend the money to protect us — and it seems the government won’t either.

  10. Lame! This reeks of ‘Next in a theatre near you’.

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