Monday, August 10, 2009

Twitter and Facebook Silenced by Russo-Georgian Cyberspat

You didn't quite see it here first (as usual, the New York Times seems to be the best source), but just last week we were writing about how cyberwars could cause serious collateral damage. Well, according to the Times, last Thursday millions of users of the social-media sites Twitter and LiveJournal had their service disrupted for the simple reason that a professor in the country of Georgia (formerly part of the old USSR) aroused the ire of some hackers whose malware-spawning abilities were way ahead of their good judgment. The 34-year-old economics professor was posting some nostalgic photos and recollections about the Russia-Georgia conflict of August 2008 when he noticed that the LiveJournal site he was using had gone bad. He tried switching to Facebook, which was also jammed, and then Twitter, which also flaked out for him. It took him a while to learn that he was the main reason that these sites were targeted by a distributed-denial-of-service attack that not only kept him from using them, but disconnected many millions of other users around the world as well. One expert said it was like bombing a TV station because you didn't like one of the newscasters.

Social media have taken on the roles formerly held exclusively by major news outlets with amazing speed. In Iran, during a June 20 election protest a young woman named Neda Agha Soltan was shot and killed. Cell-phone videos of the incident spread around the world to make her the iconic figure of the rebellion, and social media were crucial in this process.

So far, no one is relying on Twitter for much more than entertainment, unless you count a few businesses and advertisers. And so having it disappear for a few hours is nothing compared to finding a terrorist's bomb planted by a railroad line, for example. The argument I hear is that sooner or later, we will have life-critical systems that depend on the Internet in a way that hasn't happened yet, and that's when cyberwars will get serious.

There are several possible ways this situation could go in the future.

One is that engineers who design life-critical systems, keenly aware of the less-than-perfect reliability and security of Internet-based communications, will continue to take precautions that no matter what happens on the Internet, nobody will die as a consequence. That is more or less the case now, at least judging by the absence of fatal outcomes from cyberwars so far.

A second possibility is that cyberattackers will get much more sophisticated and go after hardened systems such as banks and military networks. These are much harder to crack than sites that put a lower priority on security, but determined and disciplined attacks, perhaps using dedicated cyberwar server farms rather than the rather flaky botnets, might cause serious disruptions which would be economically equivalent to blowing up a large number of office buildings (minus the people). Say somebody got hold of a bank's network and messed it up so thoroughly with misinformation and garbage transactions that it would take weeks to straighten it out, and in the meantime no electronic transactions could take place through that bank. This could effectively ruin a financial institution, unless the government stepped in to help, and we're seeing what a mixed bag that can be. And like other terrorist acts, you don't have to shut down the entire system. There is probably a psychological trigger point for bank runs, and the terrorists would only have to reach that point. Mass panic—millions of people lining up at money machines to get cash all at once—would do the rest.

Nobody would get killed, unless maybe in the crush of people around the ATMs, but you would still have an outcome equivalent in economic terms to a physical bombing.

A third scenario is something that I suppose most computer experts believe can't happen: a total freeze-up of the Internet. This might not be as bad as you think. Back when international communications were restricted to submarine cables and radio, every now and then the Earth would be hit by a geomagnetic storm caused by solar flares. Big ones occasionally caused so much surge current in undersea cables as to render them useless, and the ionosphere would get so trashed that long-distance radio channels would go down as well. In really severe storms, domestic telegraph and telephone long-distance lines would see some trouble as well. For a day or two, we'd be back in the early 19th century when the fastest message from London to New York took about a week by sea. The world survived these incidents, nevertheless, and although international commerce was a smaller portion of each nation's economy back then, I think the consequences of a worldwide Internet freeze-up might not be as bad as you might think at first, as long as it didn't last too long.

But if it took more than 24 hours or so to restore service, or if it was a patchwork thing that took weeks to get everyone back to normal, then the consequences would be severe. Just as a lot of the damage from 9/11 was to economic interests in terms of lost airline revenue, depressed retail sales, and so on, the same sort of thing would happen during and after an Internet freeze-up. So it's worthwhile at least thinking about how to prevent such a thing, or how to survive it in case it ever happens.

In the meantime, let's hope that the worst cyberattacks are no worse than last week's Twitter and Facebook scares. Personally, while there are some people I might like to get back in touch with via Facebook, the prospect of hearing unexpectedly from certain others has led me to leave the whole thing alone for the time being, so I didn't miss them. But we'll see how long I can hide.

Sources: The New York Times article on the Georgian cyberattack is at

No comments:

Post a Comment