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If the internet went down for a day, what’s the worst that could happen?

BY Samantha Cossick | Mon Jul 01, 2019
If the internet went down for a day, what’s the worst that could happen?

A world without internet … In 2019, it almost seems impossible. But what if there was an internet shutdown for a day? What would happen?

Globally, only about half of the world has internet access; however, in the U.S. less than 1% of the population doesn’t have an internet connection, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Over the past few years, the internet has become woven into the fabric of our society. Everything from banks and hospitals to the military and utility systems relies on the internet in some way, shape or form.

Take a moment to imagine with us: What would happen if the internet went down for a day?

A world without internet

It wasn’t that long ago that we actually did live in a world without the internet. The “internet” in its most basic form as a “network of networks” officially launched on January 1, 1983, but dates back to the mid-1950s. It wasn’t until 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and launched his first web client and server in 1990 that the internet as we know it started to take form.

Back in 1995, less than 1% (0.77% to be exact) of the world was using the internet. Today that number is 48.5%. While internet usage may not be as high worldwide, in the U.S alone, about a quarter of adults say they’re online “almost constantly,” according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study.

Who relies on the internet today?

Nearly everyone in the United States uses the internet, and our reliance on it grows every day.

“Many of those who founded or invented the early conceptions of the internet did not anticipate how reliant society would become on digital networks,” William H. Dutton, a Senior Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and author of Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives, told Allconnect®.

“Many were focused on sharing information among academics, and did not imagine everyday banking and shopping moving online as it has.”

Since the creation of the internet, it’s grown rapidly and every day there’s a new use case being created — some good and some bad.

“But in the case of the internet, it has been overwhelmingly a good thing – enhancing the information resources of individuals and institutions worldwide,” Dutton said. “The problems are becoming a focus because so many were caught unaware, but they are minor compared to the benefits.”

What would happen if there was an internet shutdown?

For the everyday person, some cell phone services and text messaging would be unavailable, all mobile apps and social networking sites would be down, cloud storage would be inaccessible, any pending electronic payments would fail, and more.

Some television programming that is sent via broadcast towers would still be accessible via an antenna, but most digital channels would be lost. Any electrical grids that operate on a smart grid would fail, causing power outages on top of the internet outages.

For most people who work in high-powered or white collar jobs (such as academics, doctors, lawyers, journalists and more), an internet shutdown for the day would be the equivalent of a “snow day” from work or school.

However, blue-collar workers and large institutions, both in the U.S. and around the world, that rely on the internet for day-to-day functions would be crippled.

“Those who would suffer would be workers, who increasingly depend on digital networks for their work. Take the plumber who has no office or secretary, but only a smartphone to set up and conduct business,” Dutton said.

“They would be the most affected. This is what happened when people lost the use of pagers for a day, way back in the pager era.”

Dutton is referring to the Great Pager Blackout of 1998 when a Galaxy 4 satellite fell out of orbit taking 80% of pagers and beepers in America offline. He examined the impact of this day in his book, Access Denied in the Information Age.

Today, we’d see more than just pagers going offline. Take a look at some institutions that may or may not be affected by the internet going out for a day.

Banking

When it comes to finances, more and more people are going digital. A 2018 Bankrate survey found that 63% of smartphone users have at least one financial app on their phone and the 2018 Citi Mobile Banking study revealed that mobile banking apps are one of the top three used by Americans.

Statistic: Number of mobile banking users in the United States from 2009 to 2016 (in millions) | Statista

The rise of mobile banking makes sense for consumers: Why waste your lunch break standing in line to deposit a check when you can do it any time of day electronically? But what other parts of the banking industry rely on the internet, and how could they be affected by an internet shutdown?

With the internet down, you wouldn’t be able to use any of your financial apps, so you’d have to show up at the bank to make any transactions — unless you use an online bank, in which case all banking transactions would be sidelined. Additionally, anything you have set up to pay electronically wouldn’t go through if the internet went down on the day it was scheduled.

While some banks, such as Wells Fargo, are trying out card-free ATM services using your smartphone, most ATMs around the country are still operating the same way they have for more than 50 years. So, as long as they have power, getting your cash out while the internet is down wouldn’t be a huge issue. (Though, if everyone panics, it may resemble that bank scene in It’s a Wonderful Life!)

Once all the cash is depleted from ATMs, though, things will get a bit more nebulous. Smaller banks that only recently switched to an electronic system may still be able to operate with a backup pen-and-paper system; however, larger institutions would suffer in the event of the internet going down.

A 2015 study by Lloyd’s of London and the University of Cambridge’s Center for Risk Studies looked at what would happen if a cyberattack took out the power grid, including downing internet access. In most cases, banks would need to halt all withdrawals and transfers for money and cease any automatic payments.

On February 7, Wells Fargo — the 4th largest bank in America — suffered a power shutdown at one of its facilities that took their online banking and mobile app offline for nearly two days. Even as late as February 12, some customers were still having issues accessing their accounts online.

Having their online and mobile banking applications go down left Wells Fargo scrambling to restore normal services. Customers were unable to use ATMs, transactions were processed late and automatic paycheck deposits (since the outage happened on a Thursday and spilled into Friday) didn’t go through on time putting stress on other companies that use Wells Fargo for payroll processing.

Hospitals

Advances in digital technology and the Internet of Things are revolutionizing healthcare. For instance, telemedicine in rural communities means that stroke patients who require tPA treatment (which must be approved by a neurologist and administered within a few hours of symptom onset) can be seen electronically by a neurologist, given medication sooner and have their chances of recovery improved.

Additionally, Electronic Medical Records (EMR) and patient portals — with the ability to message your doctor directly — mean patients are empowered with immediate access to their medical records and care team.

But what if all systems went down?

In May, when the internet went down at Phoenix Children’s Hospital for several hours, it was reported that all “systems were down and patient records were inaccessible.” Luckily, in this case, the outage only lasted a few hours and no patients were in harm’s way.

But, Dr. Andrew Carroll, medical director and CEO of Atembis in Chandler, AZ, made a very good point to ABC15: “I think just about everything at a hospital is dependent on the internet at this point. You flip the switch, things like your lab work that was done that morning, your radiology studies may not be available, what you did yesterday may not be available.”

Access to healthcare information could very well mean the difference between life and death in some cases, which is why most hospitals across the country have redundancies built into their processes and run drills for these exact scenarios.

For instance, in May 2018, ThedaCare Regional Medical Center, which operates seven hospitals and 14 clinics across Northeast Wisconsin participated in a three-day “Dark Sky” drill that simulated a massive power outage, including internet access going down. Through 30 different exercises, the medical center planned for everything from car crashes, riots and explosions to evacuations, terrorism and more.

In most cases, an internet shutdown for a day would be inconvenient to day-to-day operations, but shouldn’t result in life-or-death situations. Some medical centers may need to reschedule non-life threatening surgeries and procedures, but as mentioned, hospitals prepare for these types of scenarios regularly.

Military

While the internet as we know it today didn’t take shape until 30 years ago, the idea for developing a digital communications technology that relied on packet switching dates back to the Cold War of the early 1950s and has the military to thank for pursuing that technology.

Today, the military uses the internet for everything from data gathering to keeping soldiers connected with family at home to tactical and logistical operations. Last year, the U.S. Army Research Lab awarded $25 million to the Alliance for IoBT Research on Evolving Intelligent Goal-driven Networks (IoBT REIGN) to “develop and secure new predictive battlefield analytics and services.”

Many military operations rely on their own independent networks; however, some electronic communication and data transmissions do take place via the internet. Losing connection though for a day would render the military’s use of the internet obsolete and effectively set military operations back 30 or more years and cost the country millions of dollars.

In the Department of Defense Annual Energy Management and Resilience Report (AEMRR) for the Fiscal Year 2017 (released in July 2018), there were 1,205 reported utility outages lasting eight hours or more at military installations. Nearly three-fourths (72%) of these outages were caused by electrical disruptions. The estimated financial impact of these outages was $12,671 per day for a cumulative $27,615,061.

Small businesses

While all businesses would suffer if there was an internet shutdown, small businesses may suffer the most with lost customers and revenue, damaged equipment, data loss on computers, decreased inventory turnover and more.

The internet and Internet of Things have helped to optimize small businesses by improving supply chain management, processing debit and credit card payments, marketing themselves digitally, managing electronic payroll processing and more.

Small businesses that couldn’t afford to essentially “take the day off” would have to become cash-only operations relying on backup systems to keep going throughout the day.

We’re actually seeing this play out to a certain extent in Chad, a central African country of nearly 15 million people, where the internet has been blocked and/or censored for more than a year. It started when reforms to the country’s constitution were recommended that would allow President Idriss Deby to stay in power until 2033. While the majority of the block has been focused on social media sites, some online businesses have also been hit hard due to the shutdown.

The blocks have resulted in businesses relying on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to continue operations. Other countries, such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have also enforced various internet shutdowns. Across sub-Saharan Africa, internet shutdowns in 10 countries have resulted in a $235 million deficit from 2015 to 2017, according to a Collaboration of International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) report.

Transportation

Most travel operations wouldn’t be affected in the short term. While some cars are Wi-Fi enabled, they don’t rely on the internet to operate or function. Similarly, planes, trains and buses may use the internet for navigational purposes but don’t need an internet connection to operate. Even air traffic controllers still use radio signals to communicate and therefore wouldn’t be affected if there was an internet shutdown for a day.

So, while not being able to use a GPS or Waze on your phone would be inconvenient, it wouldn’t affect actual transportation operations. Any outage for more than a few days, though, may start to affect logistics of transportation networks.

Utilities

As countries around the world upgrade aging utility systems, many are turning to the Internet of Things to help improve processes. For instance, many water treatment facilities now rely on smart sensors and an interconnected system based on the internet.

Aging electrical grids are being upgraded to smart grids which use digital communication technologies to function more efficiently, such as sending more power to an area that is being overloaded, switching to renewable resources when needed, tracking usage via smart meters, and more.

David Kennedy, a former hacker for the NSA, told Tech Insider, though, that these systems would be particularly vulnerable in the event of a cyber attack.

“There’s been a number of attacks on our infrastructure, originating from both North Korea, Russia, and a number of other countries. Focusing on getting footholds into our grid, so that in the event that there’s a conflict, they can shut our infrastructure down,” he said.

“In a lot of cases, it could shut down a large percentage of our infrastructure. We would be completely blacked out. Wouldn’t be able to leverage any technology, and it would be a complete cataclysmic downfall of a lot of our infrastructure.”

How likely is it that the internet will go down?

It’s unlikely that the entire global internet would collectively go down at once for an entire day. The scenarios that would result in a planetary internet outage are things like an asteroid collision, a massive worldwide cyber attack, global nuclear war or an overwhelming solar flare.

The internet isn’t just one centralized computer that someone could unplug at any given moment. Instead, it’s a massively vast and decentralized network of computers and machines stretching across the planet.

“It would be very, very hard for the entire internet to crash based on an important systems theory principle called redundancy,” Paul Levinson, a professor at Fordham University who has published several books on technology and the digital age, told CIO.

“There are so many backup systems, so many workarounds, so many different ways to get from point A to point B. All these come online instantly and automatically if the system fails.”

What’s more likely is part of the internet going down at a time, and that’s something we see often enough. As mentioned above, Wells Fargo’s online and mobile banking applications all went down for almost two days. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp suffered a major outage in March for more than 24 hours due to a server configuration change.

Should we reduce our reliance on the internet?

Probably not.

The internet and new technologies are the way of the world. And while there are potential issues with any new technology, there’s a lot of good to be had from using the internet to improve our processes and day-to-day lives.

Instead of reducing our reliance on the internet, Dutton encourages people to increase their resilience to potential problems.

“It would be stupid to reduce your reliance on the internet. What everyone needs to do is to enhance their resilience to any problems that will occur,” he said.

“They should have backup files if their computer is lost or compromised. Everyone needs to build their capacity to withstand problems that will inevitably occur from time to time, but not check out of the digital age.”

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