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A revised doomsday scenario

By Jean-Claude Elias - Jan 04,2018 - Last updated at Jan 04,2018

Visions of doomsday are not what they used to be. Forget about the Earth being wiped out by an environmental disaster caused by the dire consequences of global warming, and forget about an all-out nuclear war that would bring civilisation as we know it to an end. Even visions of large meteorites thrashing the Earth are not what would scare us most. The way things are going, it is more likely that global mayhem will take place because of a major crash of the Internet. This is hardly an exaggeration.

When you think of all that is done through the web today, a major crash of it certainly is the worst nightmare you can envision. The world will freeze as surely as in a new ice age. Airlines, banks, transportation, security, e-mail, medicine, government institutions, telecommunications, traffic, audio-video streaming, and of course, the most critical of them all… Whatsapp! They all would come to a standstill, with all the obvious, terrible consequences that we can easily imagine.

How likely it is to happen is not something that can be accurately estimated, except that it is not excluded at all. Human errors, technical failures, accidents and hacking are always possible. 

For the last ten years or so, Europe has been trying to “decentralise” the Internet backbone that is still mainly located in North America. The Internet backbone consists of the computer servers and fibre optic cabling that make the global network. Even if you are in Jordan, for instance, and you send an e-mail to someone in a neighbouring country, you still have to go through the backbone.

To avoid a digital doomsday, Europe is increasing the number of Internet servers and fibre optic cabling on its soil, in an effort to break North America’s almost exclusive monopoly on the web. It is working, up to a certain point, but a lot remains to be done to reduce the global crash risk. Spreading the Internet backbone evenly over continents is one way to reduce both the eventuality and the consequences of a major catastrophe.

Enki Bilal is a leading, successful author of science fiction “bandes dessinées”, the French equivalent of American comics. He has just published the first chapter of a new series very aptly titled “Bug”, which tells precisely of what would happen if a major bug was to bring the Internet down. Bilal’s fiction actually covers more than network failure and also tells of how dehumanising the Internet has become, even without a doomsday scenario. But this is another story.

So far we have all experienced short and very local network failures. However frustrating they can be, such limited incidents, of course, have little to do with a major failure of the web, if it was to cover the world and last for a period exceeding four or five days, for example.

There is little doubt that everything is being done to avoid a big failure to happen. Systems are being made redundant and as safe as possible. Cyber and network security has become one of the most important specialities within the domain of Information Technology.

So far we have only had a “taste” of what a big break down would do. In “mid-2017, two major and intertwined ransomware attacks spread like wildfire across the globe, shutting down hospitals in Ukraine and radio stations in California, and that was when ransomware became an existential threat”. (csoonline.com).

 

Till now we have been praying that no world leader will ever push the button to start a nuclear war. We can now update our prayers for a safe, always-up Internet.

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