Ten ways the internet can be shut down

There are many ways to break the internet, and they don’t necessarily involve Kim Kardashian.

On Tuesday North Korea was officially offline for nearly 10 hours, in what appears to be a fresh twist to its ongoing cyber-stoush with the US over the Sony Pictures hack.

Analysts are still picking over what may have caused the outage.

Matthew Prince from internet and security company Cloudflare says the more connected a country is, the harder it’s is to knock it offline.

A country like Australia, while remote, is well connected, so we’re unlikely to be cast adrift completely.

But mass outages do happen from time to time, and there are many potential causes.

So how exactly can a country’s internet be disrupted or turned off?

1. Attack it

One way to knock a country offline is via a denial-of-service attack. Such an attack typically involves flooding the core routers of a country’s telecommunications infrastructure with more traffic than they can handle. To do this the attacker has to have more network capacity than the target.

“Botnets” — computers infected with malicious software — are typically used in distributed-denial-of-service attacks to increase the hacker’s capacity.

Last year a denail-of-service attack in China knocked all websites registered with a country domain – “.cn” (the Chinese version of “.com.au”) – offline. A similar attack against an Australian betting agency in 2004 knocked out the whole of Telstra’s Alice Springs network, part of Adelaide, and Telstra central in Sydney.

2. Pull the plug on it or order a shutdown

A graph showing internet traffic to and from Egypt in 2011.

Where connections are few and far between and governments have high degrees of power, it is possible for them to shut down internet access in the country.

This happened during the Arab Spring. In 2011, then-president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak cut the cord on his country’s internet and 3G mobile services in an attempt to quash protestors who were communicating with each other online.

A month later, Lybia followed suit ahead of planned citizen protests.

Cloudflare’s Mr Prince said the North Korean shutdown was unlikely to be state-sponsored, or it would likely still be “down for the count” (i.e. still out)

If one country relies on a neighbouring country for its connection to the internet and the rest of the world, it will obviously be at the behest of its neighbour. So if one country that connects another pulls the plug on the cable, the other country’s internet will be affected if there is no back-up connection.

North Korea only has one internet connection to the rest of the world, via China’s Unicom.

3. Do something stupid

It’s not unheard of for cables delivering the internet to be cut accidentally. Last year hundreds of Sydney residents were without their internet for days, supposedly due to some very poorly planned civil works. NBN contractors have also come under fire in the past for cutting connections.

Back in 2009, an EnergyAustralia contractor cut through at least 10 Telstra cables in Sydney, affecting CBD phones, internet and eftpos.

Councils and builders, or dogs looking to bury bones in hard-to-find places, can get advice on where it’s safe to dig at 1100.com.au.

4. Unintentionally dig it up

What’s the internet? … Hayastan Shakarian holds a handsaw near her native village of Armazi.  Photo: AFP

In 2011, a little old granny severed the internet connections of thousands of people in Georgia and neighbouring Armenia while she was digging for scrap copper. The outage lasted five hours.

She was a 75-year-old pensioner, and claimed she didn’t even know what the internet was. It wasn’t the first time someone had done this in Georgia.

5. Drown it

A large number of websites hosted in the US went down during Hurricane Sandy. Photo: merchantcircle.com

Data centres go offline when flooded or without power. Hurricane Sandy knocked out data centres in the US in 2012, taking many popular US websites offline. Floods in Queensland in 2011 also resulted in thousands being disconnected.

6. Set it on fire

A fire led to Warrnambool Telephone Exchange’s demise. Photo: Telstra

Tens of thousands of phone and internet connections in Victoria were shut off in 2012 after a fire razed the Warrnambool Telephone Exchange. It was thought to be the biggest disruption of its kind in Australia.

7. Vandalise it

In May, iiNet said vandals damaged a backhaul fibre cable in Traralgon South, Victoria. The disruption was felt all the way down in Tasmania, with impaired connections for “some broadband customers”, iiNet said.

In 2012, a separate rogue individual deliberately cut several Telstra cables in Sydney, causing millions of dollars worth of damage and cutting communications from many homes and suburbs, including the local police station.

8. Let the sharks at it

While undersea cables are typically susceptible to accidental breakage by ship anchors, fish trawlers and natural disasters, sharks are also a threat. Internet giant Google recently revealed how it was using Kevlar-style wrapping material on its cables to prevent against these types of attacks.

Australia has several fibre-optic submarine cables connecting it to the rest of the world, which means that if one goes down traffic can be re-routed.

Other countries are no so lucky, meaning that if a fibre cut occurs they can go dark.

In 2005, Pakistan was cut off completely and had to rely on a slow back-up satellite connection.

9. Let its hardware fail all by itself

Much like in episode six, season 12 of South Park (“The Day the Internet Stood Still”), router malfunctions can sometimes cause outages.

But unlike in South Park, turning it off and on again doesn’t always work.

In 2012, Telstra was cut off from its international data network after one of its resellers, Dodo, was blamed for “a very minor hardware failure” resulting in very major routing issues that affected millions of customers’ internet connections for around 45 minutes. iiNet services were affected too.

Earlier this year Vodafone also suffered data and phone issues when a faulty repeater in WA on a primary fibre link and a back-up cable failed.

“From time to time equipment fails,” a spokesman for the cable said at the time.

10. Let its software fail

In 2011, it was reported that a router firmware update carried a bug that caused mass outages for US and UK internet services, including Time Warner Cable.