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UK unlikely to ever suffer major web outage

08 May 2013
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Access to the internet is a vital part of a nation’s economic and social life. Yet with web issues hitting Syria again, and Egypt's connectivity problems earlier this year when divers sabotaged an undersea cable, countries are at risk from being cut off entirely.

With this in mind it’s tempting to ask: could the UK ever lose its internet connection and, if so, how would it happen? Thankfully, such a situation appears highly unlikely.

The first line of defence is the fact that the UK has scores of firms with a vested interest in keeping the lines of communication in and out of the country open, as Axel Pawlik, the managing director of internet organisation RIPE NCC, explained to V3.

“The UK’s open and competitive market means it would be relatively difficult to disconnect the country from the internet. The series of interconnected networks means that, like water in tributaries going towards a river, data will always find a way to its destination,” he said.

“Organisations critical to the consistent performance of the internet have multiple instances of their servers to improve performance and protect against attack – security measures even include using nuclear bunkers to physically protect the technology.”

Similar analysis from global network monitoring firm Renesys also shows the UK to be well placed, listing it as ‘resistent’ to any attacks due to the number of connections in and out of the country.

“If you have more than 40 providers at your frontier, your country is likely to be extremely resistant to internet disconnection,” wrote James Cowie, the firm's chief technology officer, in a blog post.

“There are just too many paths into and out of the country, too many independent providers who would have to be coerced or damaged, to make a rapid countrywide shutdown plausible to execute.”

Akamai Technologies’s David Belson concurred with these assessments, and noted the nature of Syria’s control over the internet makes it far easier to shut down access.
“Within Syria, the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment is associated with the country’s government – as such, government pressure to sever international connectivity needs to be placed on a single provider, making it much easier to effect,” he said.

“Within the UK, there are a number of connectivity providers, as well as more than half a dozen Internet exchanges, and no single government-affiliated telecommunications monopoly.”

All this means that if any rogue states, or Bond-level super villains, did want to take the UK offline, it would require a serious logistical effort, and a small army of hired goons (no doubt wearing garish jumpsuits) to carry out a plan of Hollywood-level daring.
“The options for taking UK servers offline would fall into broad categories of either physical or digital-based attacks,” explained Pawlik. “Taking out multiple instances might slow things down and reduce the quality of the customer experience, but given how established the internet infrastructure is in the UK, it would take a massive co-ordinated attack of both physical and digital nature – magnitudes bigger than any previous attacks ever seen – to take out all servers on our shores.”

Even then, our megalomaniac felon may find his efforts thwarted. “The UK is established enough to have multiple internet connections to the rest of the world, via satellite and undersea cables,” added Pawlik.

However, as noted, Egypt was affected by attacks on its undersea cables, and its not unheard of for ships to accidentally severe cables. Here again, though, the UK is well placed to withstand such assaults.

“For the UK to lose touch with the rest of the world, all of these links would need to be severed at the same time,” Pawlik added. “There are more than 50 undersea cables connecting the UK to the rest of the world, so attacking them all at the same time would prove to be hugely complex.”

So it appears our sceptered isle is safe from the catastrophic impact of a major web outage. This is no doubt a relief to the government, businesses and the public, and we can all sleep a little easier at night knowing the web and all its wonders will be there for us when we wake.

But while the UK can perhaps breathe easy, the Syrian and Egyptian issues have shown that many nations aren't so lucky.

Pawlik added: “Where internet access is dependent on a single ISP, sole international connection or even reliant on one top level domain, it is much easier for an attack to succeed, removing the services people and businesses have come to rely on."

Indeed, Renesys lists 61 countries as being at 'severe risk', and 72 at 'significant risk,' from losing internet access (see image below). No doubt issues like those in Syria and Egypt won't be the last time a country disppears from the internet.

Map from Renesys showing nations risk levels to internet access being cut off

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Dan Worth

Dan Worth is the news editor for V3 having first joined the site as a reporter in November 2009. He specialises in a raft of areas including fixed and mobile telecoms, data protection, social media and government IT. Before joining V3 Dan covered communications technology, data handling and resilience in the emergency services sector on the BAPCO Journal

View Dan's Google+ profile

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