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What If the Internet Stopped Working?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Benjamin Welton
Written by Benjamin Welton We all rely on it, for all sorts of tasks in our everyday lives. You wouldn't even be watching this video if it didn't exist. But what if the internet stopped working? What if the World Wide Web closed, and the Internet of Things shutdown? Expect panic and pandemonium, as we investigate how the world would change, and what the consequences would be.
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What If the Internet Stopped Working?


Members of Generation Z probably have no memory of it, but Y2K was certainly a major news story in late 1999. Also known as the “Millennium Bug” , the Y2K scare threatened the world with a complete shutdown of all Internet systems. According to the theory, since computer programmers had designed their systems to read all numerical numbers within the context of “19XX,” the year 2000 would completely disrupt all existing programs. For example, if you put in “98” into your program, then the software would recognize the year as 1998. This would not be true for “00” as in the year 2000, according to Y2K doomsayers.

For almost a full year, people were treated to doomsday scenarios about what might happen when 1999 became 2000. One of the more prevalent theories was that all electronic information would stop working, owing to the inability of computers to recognize the new millennium. Stoplights would go dark, Internet connections would stop, and, most terrifying of all, all government and military intranets would crash, thus leaving secrets and military hardware up for grabs.

Obviously, Y2K never happened. January 1, 2000 did not see any major calamities, thus making all those people who stocked up on food and survival gear look foolish. However, ever since 2000, some have continued to wonder what a complete Internet shutdown would look like. The idea is not as far-fetched as you might imagine. There have been examples of successful computer viruses shutting down entire industries, and the threat of a terrorist attack on electrical grids and other power resources remains a worry for bureaucrats in national security agencies all across the world. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at some scenarios that might result in the Internet shutting down.

Government Hackers

Back when Y2K was headline news, most people envisioned hackers as loners dressed in black leather jackets. Nowadays, that stereotype is outdated given that national governments in Russia, China, North Korea, and Israel maintain military units dedicated to electronic warfare, i.e. hacking. In the case of Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF, pulled off one of the most successful computer hacks in history with the Stuxnet virus.

Although the U.S. has also been named as one of the creators of the virus, most cyber experts agree that the government of Israel launched the Stuxnet “worm” in 2010. Some argue that the virus actually got out of control, and the U.S. and Israel could not put the genie back into the bottle once the virus reached the general Internet. Whatever the true story, the virus was specifically designed to attack Windows computers. The main launch vehicle for the virus was a common USB stick. The specific target of Stuxnet was reportedly Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant, which both the American and Israeli governments accused of manufacturing nuclear weapons. The virus did reach the plant, and it destroyed approximately 1,000 out of 6,000 centrifuges, thus seriously damaging Iran’s ability to enrich uranium.

Using computer viruses as an extension of warfare has happened and will continue to happen. This could seriously impact the civilian Internet in various ways. For instance, when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden gave top-secret information to multiple media outlets, the political fallout gave rise to public anger over the NSA’s Prism program, which used the databases of private tech companies like Google to surveil American citizens. Outrage over the Prism program, along with the Trump administration’s outcry over the misuse of secret rulings by the court for FISA, United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, could, in theory, lead to a much more restricted Internet, like the one currently in use in countries like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Another possibility is that a foreign enemy could attack the major Internet grids of the United States, thus causing a nationwide shutdown of all servers in the country. Some version of the Stuxnet worm could hit America’s nuclear program or other government resources, thus making the U.S. much more vulnerable to an outside attack. Without the ability to successfully launch anti-ballistic missile weapons systems, a North Korean or Chinese missile could strike the continental United States.

Space Weather

Although one of the less talked about possibilities, drastic changes in space weather could severely damage those satellites that are necessary for international Internet usage. Such an event has happened before, such as in 1998, when a satellite costing $250 million dollars began wildly spinning in space thanks to a solar flare. When this satellite, the Galaxy IV, failed, so too did other satellites owned by the United States, Japan, and Motorola.

Another solar incident could completely cut off cell phone service throughout a large swath of the globe. Without cell phones or geolocation devices, deaths or an increase in missing persons would most likely occur. Similarly, a major solar flare could melt the entire Internet. This scenario seems unlikely, but if just a portion of satellites were melted beyond repair, then Internet access would be impacted.

Terror Attack

Arguably, the two most fear-inducing types of terror attacks are the use of a “dirty bomb” of either nuclear or biological origin and the dreaded EMP attack. An electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, attack would feature missiles causing severe damage without even hitting land. A nuclear EMP warhead would detonate miles above their targets and produce significant gamma waves. These gamma waves would then emit an electromagnetic pulse that would disrupt or damage all electronic devices.

The main target of an EMP attack would be electrical grids. If these grids were compromised, then a nationwide blackout would last for anywhere between six months to a year. According to former CIA nuclear strategist Peter Vincent Pry, who spoke about the possibility of a North Korean EMP attack before the Congressional Homeland Security subcommittee in October 2017, fallout from a successful EMP attack would look like this: all available food in America’s supermarkets would be consumed within three days. Reserve food sources would begin to spoil at the one-month mark. Pry claimed that starvation would kill 90-percent of America’s 320 million people. When starvation becomes the norm, disease usually follows. Another large chunk of America’s population would die due to diseases, like cholera or scurvy. Dysentery rates would increase as well, and so too would the rate of heart attacks and heart failures. After all, without a consistent diet, the human body begins to shut down.

In this nightmare scenario, public services like the police and firefighters would cease to function. Hungry, diseased cops would not protect the general population, thus leading to the possibility of Mad Max-like gangs ruling cities and the highways.

While all of this may sound too much like science fiction, it is worth pointing out that many of history’s great civilizations perished due to disease or starvation. The Mayan civilization most likely ended thanks to drought and the overproduction of certain crops, which led to mass starvation. The Plague of Justinian, which occurred during the reign of the great Byzantine emperor Justinian, killed millions of Byzantine and Persian subjects and did not officially end until 750 C.E. During that time, new fighters from the Arabian Desert calling themselves Muslims had won victims over the weakened Byzantine forces, thus irrevocably turning the Middle East and North Africa away from the Christian religion.

Of course, there was the case of Black Death, where the Bubonic plague is believed to have killed between 350 and 375 million people in Europe and Asia in the 14th century. Medical advances have come a long way since these pandemics, but if America’s electrical grid was attacked with a massive computer virus or EMP weapon, then all of those advances could return back to the Stone Age.

All you have to do is look and around and see how much of our daily lives rely on Internet technology. If those tools disappeared tomorrow, then nothing short of societal collapse would follow.
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