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America Offline: Can the U.S. be disconnected from the Net?

Brad Chacos | July 15, 2013
Imagine a world with no tweets, no emails, no notifications pushed to your phone. A world without Candy Crush or indeed, even Facebook; a land without the Internet.

Imagine a world with no tweets, no emails, no notifications pushed to your phone. A world without Candy Crush or indeed, even Facebook; a land without the Internet.

The thought may sound like heaven to minimalists, but in recent months, dictators around the world have been all too willing to transform the idea into a hellacious reality, flipping a switch and completely disconnecting whole nations from the Web: Syria. Egypt. Libya. All have been plunged into darkness during periods of civil unrest.

But is there any way the United States could be disconnected from the Internet? Could an act of terror, war, or simple governmental dictatorship snatch away our social feeds and online gaming? Curious, I reached out to several experts to examine all the potential doomsday scenarios.

Physical attack on the tubes
They say the Internet is a series of tubes. One obvious way to disconnect the United States from the rest of the Net would be to cut, blow up, or otherwise destroy those tubes, right?

Not so fast. As it turns out, you'd need to cut a lot of tubes to completely disconnect the U.S. from the Internet. Check out the map below of all the undersea cables that connect the country to the outside world. Now, consider that TeleGeography's map lists only undersea cables (which you can peruse here), and doesn't include the legion of wires that connect the U.S. to Canada and Mexico over land. And what about wireless networks?

Yeah, you're starting to get the picture. Disconnecting all of America's tubes just isn't going to happen.

"It's close enough to impossible that in realistic terms, it's unlikely to the point of irrelevancy," says Patrick Gilmore, the chief network architect at Akamai, a content delivery network estimated to be responsible for up to 20 percent of all Web traffic. The good news doesn't end there.

"Even if you could do that, a lot of the reason things were done like that in Egypt and Syria were to keep people from posting to social networking sites," Gilmore continues. "Many of those social networking sites are hosted here in the United States. So if you could wave a magic wand and disconnect the United States, people would still see all those posts from each other inside the United States. It wouldn't stop that from happening."

Score one for free speech.

Hack attack on the servers
If the tubes are the veins of the Internet, the servers that power the Net are its brains. Could hackers use their botnets and evil geek powers to send America spiraling offline?

"That's actually much more likely than a physical attack, I think," says Dorian Kim, VP of IP engineering and network development for NTT Communications, the second-largest Internet backbone provider in the world.  "...The entire wiring system relies a great deal on various systems of trust. It's possible for somebody--especially someone who is kind of an insider at an ISP or telco--to do things that would disrupt the infrastructure in a pretty widespread way."


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