Recently a business strategist, asked me. “Should I worry? The NY Times website was attacked by the Syrians.” He went on to ask “Is the Internet vulnerable?”
That’s a great question. The adage the only bad question is the one not asked, applies. Many many people do not need to the details about how the Internet works. But having a sense can help them understand what we face.
I used an analogy to answer his question: The Internet is like the United States transportation system. There are many roads, railroads, streets, and even airports, all criss-crossing this country. In the countryside the roads are fewer and smaller. As we get closer to big cities with more people, the roads get bigger. At rush hour the roads slow down and get congested.
If you parked a truck on a busy freeway, you’d create a traffic jam. People would look for alternative routes. Most roads would not be impacted because this is a big country.
But you don’t need to crash a truck, you could just coordinate a flash mob. You could get 20 of your friends to park their cars in the middle of the street at Times Square — you’d really hose things up. This is what internet attackers do – they tell other computers to park their car on a website.
The Internet isn’t a freeway and doesn’t have cars. Everything is electronic. Instead you can sit at home and direct your friends to visit the same NY Times website all at the same time. You’d cause that one website to slow down; but you couldn’t stop the entire Internet. Traffic just re-routes around the problem.
The Syrians or any organized attacker, doesn’t recruit friends, they just borrow thousands and thousands of computers that have been infected with computer viruses. They just tell the virus to repeatedly visit the NY Times. Presto. You have instant mess.
So do we need to worry? Yes and no. No, because you can’t attack the entire network all at once. Yes, because there are millions of infected computers. (Panda Security 2012 Annual report estimates 32% of the worlds computers are infected!) Attackers can use infected computers to direct them to attack and snarl traffic. Will we get rid of viruses? No. Just like we try to vaccinate our human bodies, viruses still exist. The question becomes are we keeping up with the vaccinations? Are we keeping the computer viruses in check? Will we prevent a plague and all out attack on many cities simultaneously? Or will we need a plague to make us act and vaccinate the internet?