Most people can go a day without the Internet. But what about a month? Or longer?
It’s something most of us never think about, because the Internet is always there, like the water that comes out of the tap or the lights that flick on when we hit a switch. But maybe we should think about it, and pay alert attention to the sporadic Internet outage that hit many parts of the country on October 21.
Unknown hackers bombarding one key node of the Internet’s backbone were able to disrupt huge sites such as Twitter, Netflix, SoundCloud, the New York Times and many others, in an attack that began on the East Coast but spread throughout the United States. The FBI and Dept. of Homeland Security are investigating, suggesting that the U.S. government sees the disruption as a national-security threat posed by an unseen enemy, possibly backed by Russia or China.
Temporarily losing access to online movies, music, shopping or social media sites is an inconvenience. Nothing more. But the Internet is now so integral to our lives that a longer or deeper disruption would threaten our ability to access money, purchase goods and get around. At some point it could easily threaten public safety. Combined with other attacks on infrastructure—such as the electrical grid—a deliberate Internet outage could even constitute a form of “asymmetric warfare” meant to cause chaos and bollix up American society.
While researching my 2015 book Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Political and Financial Freedom, I spent time with some “disaster preppers” in the New York City area, learning about people who prepare for the worst. Preppers have become a staple of cable TV, thanks to shows such as “Doomsday Preppers” and “Running Wild with Bear Grylls.” Some preppers are wacky, apocalyptic types who think end days are nigh. But some are thoughtful people concerned about what might happen if, well, the Internet went out, the electrical grid blinked off or some other event strained or broke society’s ability to cope with disaster.
The New York preppers I hung out with had all experienced Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 superstorm that flooded lower Manhattan, wrecked dozens of communities and left millions without power for days. In my own area, prolonged power outages meant gas stations couldn’t operate, and I ran out of gas in my own car after a few days. When you live in the suburbs, as I do, you rely on your car and assume you’ll always be able to hit the road and bug out if necessary. But I couldn’t. Had there been some sort of second strike, if you will, following Sandy, I would have had no choice but to stay and deal with it.
As research for Liberty for All, I participated in a “Tough Prepper’s Bug-Out Weekend” in the Catskill Mountains, about 130 miles north or New York City. We basically camped in the woods for a couple of days, practicing how to use survival gear and rehearsing scenarios in which all the familiar resources—Internet access, cell phones, electricity, water, medical care and even fire or police protection—are cut off. I considered myself pretty resourceful at the time—and the preppers proved me wrong. I brought the wrong clothes, spent half the weekend freezing, and got too wrapped up in fancy survivalist gizmos peddled on outdoorsy Web sites. While struggling to start a fire with some kind of flint device, one of the preppers walked over to me and said, “here, try this”—and handed me a Bic lighter. I now have a bunch stored around my house.
The Internet and the electrical grid are inextricably linked. The Internet, obviously, doesn’t work without power, so a power outage is the most likely way to experience a full-blown Internet outage. During Sandy, power outages were patchy, and many people who lost power had friends or family members who still had power. We leaned heavily on them to charge our cell phones, warm up—and log into the Internet.
When Internet access is shut off, the first thing you notice is the trouble you have getting basic information—like the weather forecast and news about what’s going on around you. TV and radio stations are an old-fashioned backup, provided there’s power and they’re operating. You can’t send email, but you can still communicate with people, as long as the cellular networks are up and running, your devices are charged and you can call people.
A deeper, longer Internet outage would make things dicier. Many financial transactions these days require Internet access at some point, since a lot of businesses connect to the financial system through an Internet provider instead of using a telephone landline, as they did a decade or two ago. If some financial transactions get scuttled, the problem is bound to cascade, since everything in the financial system is tightly linked these days. Imagine direct-deposit paychecks not being deposited, online payments not going through, and all sorts of imbalances piling up. It’s not a good idea to keep a lot of cash around the house, but many preppers anticipate the breakdown of the electronic financial system and keep cash and other tradeable valuables strategically stashed in places strangers aren’t likely to find them.
The nation’s logistical system is heavily reliant upon the Internet, as well. Logistics sounds terribly boring, until goods you rely on stop showing up in conveniently located stores. If merchants can’t place orders or pay bills, suppliers aren’t likely to simply show up with free goods for anybody who needs them. Commerce in the United States is remarkably efficient, with food, clothing, sundries and all sorts of other things arriving in stores just as they’re needed, with minimal physical inventory sitting in the basement of malls or grocery stores. Disrupt that for a few days or longer, and the problem will promptly become apparent as stores shelves empty.
How bad could it possibly get? The worst-case scenario is probably a prolonged outage of the Internet, the electrical grid and phone service all at once, which could truly leave individuals reliant upon their own wits and their ability to band together as communities pooling their resources and looking out for each other. The preppers I spent time with were concerned enough about widespread disruption to anticipate scenarios such as the need to cross the Hudson River—which separates New York City from mainland America—in an inflatable raft, assuming all bridge and tunnel access were cut off. Some of them had contingency plans with friends and relatives for how to hopscotch from house to house, based on the best and worst places to be. Others learned how to use two-way radios to communicate over long distances, in the event there’s no other way to reach people. Many had weapons and were well-trained in how to use them.
A lot of Americans have purchased generators during the last several years, just in case there’s a prolonged power outage caused by a storm, hacking attack or who knows what. Here’s what a lot of those people don’t know: First, you can’t assume fuel to power the generators will be available if the power goes out, since gas stations require power to pump gas and don’t always have backup power. It might make sense to keep some gasoline or diesel fuel on hand, but guess what: It becomes unstable after a few months and needs to be replaced. And you can’t just pour 20 or 50 gallons of gas down the drain, unless you’re comfortable violating every law governing the disposal of toxic liquids. So if you really want to be prepared, you need to have a generator AND a [legal] means of storing fuel that will be safe and effective on short notice. It can be done. But it takes effort.
What are the odds of any of this actually happening? Probably low. But not zero, and also probably rising. National-security officials say obliquely that they have detected at least a couple significant efforts to cripple elements of the U.S. infrastructure system, without giving specifics. The Wall Street Journal has run several important stories on a series of mysterious attacks on electrical substations in California that left government officials deeply worried about the possibility of a “coordinated attack” on the grid that could darken whole cities or regions. And now, we’ve just seen the largest known effort to shut down the Internet. Maybe it’s nothing. But maybe it’s something.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.