All right, kids, gather around while we old folks regale you with stories of what life was like in ancient times — around 1990.
If you needed something such as food or clothing, you’d get in your car, drive to the store, and haul it home. Need information? Why, the newspaper is chock full of it. Communicating with others required writing on a piece of paper, putting it in a stamped envelope, mailing it and awaiting a response. Same deal to pay bills, only in this case those pieces of paper were called “checks.” For more immediate connections, you could use the telephone — most homes had one — or if out on the go, find a pay phone; they were everywhere!
And if you wanted to steal something of value — money or belongings or personal information — that really took effort.
Few of us were around when electricity became ubiquitous in homes and businesses or when the automobile became standard for most households, so we don’t have good frames of reference to understand how a technology can go from nonexistent to exotic curiosity to the status of being so ingrained in daily work and life that we can barely remember when or how we operated without it.
Even if, in the case of the internet, that transition covers less than 30 years.
On occasion, though, we get reminders of how much we’ve come to rely on the internet and how hapless we are when it’s not available. Sometimes the reminders are on the micro level, such as when your laptop’s battery drains. On occasion it’s more regional, such as when your local service provider has an outage.
Then there are more widespread disruptions, as happened last week when a portion of Amazon Web Services’ network burped, knocking out websites reliant upon it.
And we’ll really find out just how reliant we’ve become on the internet when the Big One — whether from system failure or deliberate attack on a massive scale — takes the internet down, and not just for a few hours.
The term “the Big One” is usually reserved around these parts for a cataclysmic earthquake that destroys homes, commercial buildings, roads and utilities, but it’s useful for thinking about what happens if — or when — the equivalent hits the information networks.
When the power goes out for a few hours or a water line in the street bursts, that’s a minor irritation. When the outage lasts for several days — as has happened with some ice and wind storms around here — that’s a problem. If it lasts for weeks, or months? Unthinkable.
But how unthinkable is it really? People unfortunate enough to live in war zones or be hit by catastrophe-level natural disasters wind up as refugees because the basics of life such as water and electricity are gone.
If comparing that sort of personal and societal calamity to loss of the internet seems overly dramatic, do a quick mental audit of your business or workplace and calculate how reliant it’s become on having that channel of communication. Then imagine what happens when it’s disconnected for days, or longer.
Power grids, water distribution systems, communications networks and highways are subject to failure even in the absence of deliberate attack. Someone puts an excavator shovel in the ground where they shouldn’t. A rotted-out tree limb burdened by snow falls on an electric line. Wear, tear and nature cause a road to crumble. A hiccup in software or hardware turns out the lights on websites.
The problem for the internet is that deliberate attacks are real and on the rise. The vulnerabilities and access points are plentiful. The amount of damage that can be caused, whether by destruction-as-sport amateurs or warfare-by-other-means nations, is potentially greater.
That’s why you’re hearing so much talk, and some action, these days about cybersecurity (in an odd twist, the problem is working to Tacoma’s benefit, as evidenced by the announcement by online network services and security consultancy Infoblox to hire more people at its Tacoma office). The risks to all of us if those attacks succeed will only increase because the dependency on the internet is increasing, to include control over other essentials of life such as water and electricity.
Unless, of course, you believe the internet isn’t as essential as those others and that life will get along just fine without it. That’s a dubious proposition, as even a small-scale event like last week’s reminds us. Now imagine putting that proposition to a large-scale real-world test.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.