The biggest threats to the internet

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Jan 11, 2015
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The biggest threats to the internet

With over seven billion people on the planet and approximately 40% of them online, the internet is one of the most important resources to protect, but is it completely protected? We’ve all heard about bugs like Shellshock and the 512k router problem, but are there other menaces that could bring down the worldwide web?

Are data centres safe? (Image: Wikimedia)

512k routers nearing their limit

“While there are extreme scenarios like natural disasters and terrorist attacks that can cause disruption to the web, it is actually far more commonplace to see the internet fall foul due to shortcomings with routine maintenance and operations, such as hardware upgrades,” says Mike Palladino, director of IP infrastructure and operations at internet hosting company Internap in Atlanta, US. Palladino is talking about widely-deployed, older routers hitting their default 512k routing table limit, a problem that has this year seen websites and networks knocked down.

It’s time to move to IPv6

At around 500,000 routes – a figure that’s increasing by around 1,000 routes per week – the growth of the global internet routing table shows no signs of slowing. “It’s putting many organisations on a collision course with network instability over the coming months and years as millions of legacy routers hit their physical limits,” thinks Palladino. “What makes the problem even more challenging is that companies don’t want the headache of fully migrating to IPv6, so they are trying to squeeze as much IPv4 out of the remaining allocations as possible, which is only adding to the inflation of the routing table.”

Many companies are getting caught off guard, Palladino believes, and smaller enterprises in particular could learn some very painful lessons.

Government censorship

This is the real baddie. “Some of the largest instances of internet outages weren’t caused by natural disasters or terrorist attacks, but rather government censorship,” says Brian Chappell, Director, Technical Services EMEAI & APAC at the Leeds office of BeyondTrust.

There are theoretical threats – such as the Kremlin’s plans to take control of the .ru domain and take Russia off the global internet during an ’emergency’ – and there are real problems caused by governments, such as the ‘great firewall’ in China. The latter’s latest effort is Green Dam, a piece of web censorship software that will soon be pre-installed inside every computer sold in China.

The NSA might be monitoring, but other governments actively switch off the internet

That, and Edward Snowden’s NSA online surveillance revelations, are mere asides in the fight against governments who think it is their right to switch the internet on and off. Censorship by the Chinese government was thought to be behind an internet outage in January that severed access to the web for hundreds of millions of people, while governments in both Libya and Egypt effectively banned the internet during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

And who can forget the almost comical stance of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called social media “the worst menace to society” before banning it in April? Luckily, the country’s constitutional court overturned the ban after two weeks. However, the ban had an unexpected consequence. “When the Turkish prime minister banned Twitter, tweets about the ban and from Turkey increased significantly,” says Dinah Alobeid at the New York office of analyst company Brandwatch.

It might be interrupted by earthquakes, hurricanes, ageing hardware or banned by power-crazy governments, but the internet consistently does one thing very well – it always fights back.

Data centres in disaster zones

Is your service safe? From 2.6 zettabytes in 2012, global data centre traffic growth is set to hit 7.7 zettabytes by 2017, a tripling of workload. Global cloud traffic will soon dominate data centre traffic, and it’s growing fastest in the Middle East and Africa.

Tragedy could hit any data centre at any time. Hurricanes are common in the eastern US, and earthquakes in the west, while tornadoes, freezing winters, floods, and of course terrorism, can happen almost anywhere. It’s less about choosing a data centre in a safe location and more about knowing what its Plan B is.

 “Take care in selecting a data centre and have full knowledge of its disaster planning,” advises Jim Cowie, Chief Scientist at cloud-based internet performance company Dyn. “If your data centre facility isn’t properly prepared for a potential disaster, you are risking major outages and potential loss of revenue.”
Data centre

Cowie recommends investing in an intelligent load balancer. “If you rely on only one data centre to hold and serve all of your information, it’s only a matter of time before something happens, causing your site to go down,” he says. “With failover, in the event of an outage on your primary server, you can redirect traffic to a redundant, off-site server.” An intelligent load balancer can geographically load balance traffic and have built-in failover mechanisms.

However, Palladino thinks that the internet at large already has a built-in back-up plan. “In the rare event of a natural disaster that severs cable connections, intelligent routing capabilities can help organisations to ensure continued network availability and prevent any disruptions,” he says. “These technologies have the potential to scan networks globally for traffic-impacting issues like outages, packet loss and latency, and redirect traffic over alternative and stable internet paths.”

Cowie agrees, but warns against complacency. “The internet is a dense web of domestic and international connectivity, and in response to any possible disruption the internet will route around catastrophic damage and keep the packets flowing, despite terrible chaos and uncertainty.” However, Cowie thinks that companies should always have a separate backup plan to reinforce their online presence.

Security bugs, viruses and hackers

So far in 2014 we’ve had Heartbleed and Shellshock, and numerous targeted hacks, but despite the cybersecurity doom-merchants the internet still appears to be working.

“The number of variables involved in deliberately trying to blackout the entire internet make it next to impossible – even when there’s availability of widespread vulnerabilities such as Shellshock – these are still limited in the scope of their impact,” says Chappell. “While there are key points on the internet that can result in widespread outages, targeting them all comprehensively would need understanding, timing and coordination beyond the imagining of most of us.”


Cybersecurity must move to mobile devices (Image: Wikimedia)

Others aren’t so sure. “Hackers are getting more sophisticated and staying a step ahead of security measures,” says Marc Malizia, CTO of cloud solutions provider RKON Technologies. “This will escalate until companies start taking the threat seriously and put resources and cutting edge technologies in place to protect their devices, including mobile phones and laptops.”

Malizia predicts that in 2015 more organisations will begin equipping mobile devices with security software.

In the longer term, the Internet of Things is cybersecurity’s next frontier – no-one is going to want their car/fridge/toilet hacked.

A network node goes down

Companies like AT&T have Network Disaster Recovery teams that jump on a plane as soon as a ‘smoking hole’ appears on their global networks. However, just as likely as an earthquake or a 9/11 scenario is a complete overload of a network node during, say, a protest or some other unscheduled mass event.

So high are the stakes that an entire industry is watching internet traffic in the hope of stopping or circumventing an outage. So far, it’s been very successful, and even major disasters like October 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which ripped through the east coast of the US, have failed to cause havoc.


Not even a hurricane can stop the internet (Image: NASA)

RIPE NCC – one of the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) that support the critical infrastructure of the internet around the world – used its RIPE Atlas to measure the effects of the storm on the internet to see how traffic was diverted around the problem. It shows us how network operators are able to compensate for all but the most severe damage to infrastructure, and function almost normally even without one of their critical hubs.

“We do need to be concerned about our dependency on the internet, but thankfully its architects had already thought about its resilience and robustness,” says Chappell, who points out that in the early days of the net the technology being used wasn’t very reliable. Consequently it’s designed to be resilient enough to cope with frequent dropouts.

“The Internet operates as a packet-switching network, so even in normal operation there’s no certainty that two sequential data packets in a transmission will follow the same route, and it doesn’t matter that they don’t,” says Chappell. “It means that when a disaster or attack takes out a portion of the network, the rest can carry on operating, actively routing traffic around the failure until it’s resolved.”

So resilient is the internet, Chappell believes, that a major disruption to it would be really bad news. “A total internet blackout from a natural disaster is going to leave us with more to worry about than whether we can get to our Facebook accounts,” he says, “as it’s likely to have also affected many more of the fundamental requirements for life.”



Author: Jamie Carter

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