Visualizing the Internet

Submarine fiber optic cables around the worldOrdinarily, when one talks about visualizing cyberspace, they think of massive neon-structures or cityscapes made up of cascading symbols of data. While these images – the creation of writers like William Gibson and film makers like the Waschowski Brothers – are certainly visually appealing, they are not exactly realistic, and hardly do the real thing justice.

Thankfully, a recent article over at policymic has presented us with a new and interesting way of visualizing this thing we call the World Wide Web. By compiling images of the various deep-sea cables that allow us to transmit information at the speed of light, author Laura Dimon reminds us that while the internet may be made up of trillions of bits of data moving about at any given moment, it is dependent upon real-world physical connections.

Submarine Cable Map 2012And these connections are extensive, with more than 550,000 fiber optic cables running along the ocean floor that are responsible for transmitting trillions upon trillions of interactions per day. According to the Washington Postthese cables “wrap around the globe to deliver emails, web pages, other electronic communications and phone calls from one continent to another.”

But surprisingly, few people seem to truly appreciate this. In an age of WiFi where more and more networks are being added to our public airwaves every day, the perception that all this information is something ethereal seems to have become rooted. Luckily, real-world events – such as the severing of several Seacom cables off the coast of Alexandria back in March – have managed to remind people just how grounded and potentially vulnerable the internet is.

Global Internet Map 2012Given our immense and increasing reliance on the internet for business, personal communications, entertainment and shopping, one would that we as a people would possess at least a passing knowledge of how it works. But as Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chair, claimed in his book The New Digital Age: “The internet is among the few things humans have built that they don’t truly understand.”

Luckily, Laura provides a breakdown in her article which is a good start:

It consists of tens of thousands of interconnected networks run by service providers, individual companies, universities, and governments. There are three major parts to its construction: the networks that physically connect to each other (with about 12 that are particularly significant); the data-storing centers; and the architecture that lies in between. That is where it gets really interesting.

Global Internet Map 2011And just in case this doesn’t provide a clear picture, there are numerous images that have been created by organizations like Telecom Maps and The Fiber Optic Association. These show just how immense, extensive, and crisscrossed the cables that bring us all our emails, videos, blog feeds, and ability to surf are.

In addition, they also remind us that the historic gap between the developed and underdeveloped world persists into the information age. For every network of cables, there are cable landing stations that connect the deep sea lines to the continent they are servicing. As the maps show, Europe has more international network capacity than any other world region.

Global Voice Traffic Map 2010

They also remind us that the once undisputed technological supremacy of the United States has been slowly eroding as humanity enters the 21st Century. This has been especially apparent within the last decade, where localized service providers have eschewed the US as a central hub and begun to connect their networks to other countries and regions.

Fascinating, and educational. I hope someday to be able to use these sorts of visualizations in the classroom, as a means of letting students know what enables all their surfing habits. I imagine most of them will be surfing on their smartphones as I speak!

Sources: policymic.com, telegeography.com, thefoa.org

Cyberwars: The Biggest Cyber Attack in History?

cyber_virusIt’s been declared: the largest cyber attack in the history of the internet is happening right now. But you can forget about the US and China, this one is going on between private organizations, both of whom . In short, the fight comes down to Cyberbunker – a decommissioned NATO bunker located just outside of Kloetinge in the Netherlands – and a non-profit anti-spam organization named Spamhaus.

But first, a little background information is required for those of us not well-versed in the comings and goings of cyberwarfare (I include myself in this mix). Cyberbunker, as its name suggests, is an internet service provider and data haven that hosts websites and data stores for various companies. Founded in 1998, it began with the mission of hosting companies and protecting their data-assets from intrusion and attack.

cyberbunkerSpamhaus, on the other hand, is a non-profit that tracks internet addresses that are sources of email spam, and adds their addresses to a blacklist. Companies that use this blacklist—which include pretty much every email provider and most internet service providers on the planet—automatically block those addresses. Hence, to be blacklisted by this organization is to have your bottom line seriously effected.

The conflict between these two belligerents began in 2011, when Spamhaus began targeting Cyberbunker through one of its clients – and internet service provider named A2B. At the time, Spamhaus was trying to convince said provider that Cyberbunker was a haven for spam email, which led A2B to drop them as a client. Shortly thereafter, Cyberbunker moved onto a new internet service provider, leaving Spamhaus free to blacklist them directly.

Spamhaus attack … did it affect you?When they did, Cyberbunker responded in a way that seemed to suggest they wanted to live up to the reputation Spamhaus was bestowing on them. This involved massive retaliation by launching a cyberattack of some 300 billion bits of data per second, designed to clog Spamhaus’s connection to the internet and shut down their infrastructure.

Might sound like a tiff between two internet companies and nothing more. But in truth, this attack was so big that it began affecting service for regular people like you and me who happen to rely on some of the internet connections the attack is commandeering. In short, millions were effected by this “largest attack in internet history”, as their internet slowed down and even shorted out. Some even went as far as to say that it “almost broke the internet”.

internetBut for many others, this attack went unnoticed. In fact, according to an article by Gizmodo, most people were relatively unaffected. While some companies, like Netlix, reported sluggish streaming, they did not go down, mega net-enterprises such as Amazon reported nothing unusual, and organizations that monitor the health of the web “showed zero evidence of this Dutch conflict spilling over into our online backyards”.

In short, the attack was a major one and it had a profound impact on those sites it was directed at, and the collateral damage was noticeable. But aside from that, nothing major happened and this tiff remains a war between an organization known for spamming and one known for targeting them. And it shows no signs of slowing down or stopping anytime soon.

computer-virus.istockAccording to Patrick Gilmore, chief architect at the internet hosting service Akamai who was interviewed by the New York Times, the bottom line for CyberBunker is that “they think they should be allowed to spam.” CyberBunker is explicit on its homepage that it will host anything but child pornography and “anything related to terrorism.”

So while this latest incident did not cause “Infopocalype”, it does raise some interest questions. For one, how hard is it to wage a full-scale cyberwarfare in this day and age? Apparently, it is rather easy to create massive networks of “zombie PCs and use them to carry out related attacks, not to mention cheap since the hardware and software is hardly sophisticated.

cyber-war-1024x843And as it stands, numerous groups, including military hackers, are engaged in a back and forth with government and industrial giants that involves stealing information and spying on their activities. If things were to escalate, would it not be very easy for hackers or national cyberwarfare rings – especially ones operating out of China, Israel, Iran, Russia or the US – to try and shut down their enemies infrastructure by launching terabytes of useless data at them?

Oh, I shudder to think! An entire nation brought to its heels by adds for Russian brides, discount watches and cheap Viagra! But for the moment, it seems this latest apocalyptic prediction has proven to be just as flaccid as the others. Oh well, another day, another dollar…

Sources: qz.com, gaurdian.co.uk, gizmodo.com