In the majority of developed countries, Internet access is seen as “the fourth utility.” Similar to having a water and electricity supply, Internet access is now considered part of key infrastructure, supporting things as varied as emergency services through to helping to provide education to remote communities.

The Internet has transformed our daily lives, directly and through the services it underpins. With the rise of society’s reliance on the Internet, it’s only natural that some people will look for ways to disrupt and control it. But what would it take to hit the “off” switch?

What is the state of play now?

The first thing to consider is size. It’s a lot harder to shut down a large decentralised network than a small centralised one, and it’s even more difficult if you’re dealing with the massive “network of networks” that we call the Internet. It’s impossible to say accurately how big the Internet is right now - there are new networks connecting every day and old ones being switched off. We’re also seeing a massive increase in the number of Internet-connected devices - CCS Insight predicts that by 2017 the combined number of mobile phones and tablets in use will exceed the world's population.

There are big differences in the state of the Internet depending on the region you’re in. The UK, for example, has an advanced infrastructure which includes a number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and multiple connections to other countries and continents. There are new ISPs being created all the time and these add more connections to the Internet, so if one was cut off, information could still potentially route around that blockage.

The UK has a large number of links to outside communities, which means it would be incredibly difficult to disconnect the country from the Internet. Partly because of the UK’s open and competitive telecommunications market, there are more than 50 undersea cables connecting the UK to the rest of the world, so attacking them all at the same time would prove to be hugely challenging. It would take a massive co-ordinated attack of both a physical and digital nature - magnitudes bigger than any previous attacks ever seen - to sever all of the links at the same time.

Even if all UK-based servers and 90 percent of those links to the rest of the world were compromised, data would find its way out of and into the UK, though we may have to wait a bit longer for web services.

At a local level, organisations like Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), which are critical to the consistent performance of the Internet, have different levels of protection in place from using multiple locations to build redundancy and protect against attack, through to using former nuclear bunkers to physically protect the technology.

If not physical, the next avenue of attack would be digital - could the Internet be attacked digitally and “shut down” that way? Marc Rogers, Principle Analyst at leading security company Lookout comments: “The complexity of today’s global infrastructure means the chances of a hacker being able to 'switch off' the Internet are slim to none in developed countries. A relatively small DDoS attack could cripple or “switch off” the Internet in a developing country, whereas it would have little impact in a larger, more developed country. Regions which still rely on just a handful of physical connections will be at risk of physical attacks.”

What happens when the Internet goes dark?

In other parts of the world, Internet infrastructure isn’t as developed or is more tightly controlled centrally by the state. Having a single Internet connection into a region instantly increases the vulnerability - anyone wanting to disrupt services only needs to target that single cable instead of attacking multiple points.

Internet outages in Syria hit the headlines recently. In May 2013, the Internet in Syria went dark twice - something which was documented on our RIPEstat graph of the region.
This could have been caused by a technical fault such as a cable cut or power outage, or as a result of an administrative action. In practice, it meant that there was no traffic flow between Syria and the rest of the world.

Cable cutting can happen anywhere in the world and is of special concern for developing countries, which often rely on a single physical connection. It’s difficult to guard against this, especially with undersea cables, though some countries have protection in the form of ships monitoring key locations at sea.

In June 2013, Formentera, a small Balearic island south of Ibiza, was left without Internet connection when a privately-owned Dutch yacht set anchor on the cable connecting the island to Ibiza (and, in turn, the Internet as a whole). Cash machines, private Internet connections and even the local hospital’s connection were amongst those rendered offline on Formentera. The only real safeguard against region-specific disconnection is to increase the number of Internet connections between areas, using a combination of delivery methods such as physical cables and satellite connections.

In the US, last year’s Superstorm Sandy demonstrated that, even when there are localised outages, the Internet is pretty good at working around the problem to keep delivering the data requested. One of the areas hit by Sandy happened to contain major hubs for international Internet connectivity, but traffic between North America and Europe was still able to re-route over different paths and get through - albeit slower.

What the future holds

For developed countries, the increased Internet connections means that the risk of cyber-attacks is of greater concern in the future, and the newly coined “Internet of things” opens up new avenues for would-be attackers.

Today’s advanced technology - from smartphones to “smart homes” - not only utilises the Internet, but is being built with the Internet at its very core. This requires a change in attitude from people, businesses and governments. The Internet is a powerful tool and we need to focus on how people can safely enjoy it.

Marc Rogers of Lookout comments: “The expansion of the ‘Internet of Things” is exposing an exponentially widening, totally unprotected attack surface, giving more entry routes than ever before to sensitive governmental, corporate and personal data - this vulnerable underbelly is the foremost concern in most developed nations.”

The Internet itself has changed dramatically from what we initially thought it would be and it is still developing at a rapid rate. With the ever increasing “Internet of Things” and rise of connected devices, the Internet opens up a whole new way of thinking and behaving. For now, we need to be aware of the vulnerabilities and risks facing Internet connections, whilst working towards a more connected society so that the Internet can continue to support innovation that enhances the lives of everyone across the world.

Axel Pawlik is the Managing Director of the RIPE Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC)