Bringing down the Internet

Monday, 27 October 2003, 8:41 AM EST

If you wanted to write a science-fiction thriller about the day the Internet crashed, you’d start with a computer geek. Armed with nothing but a laptop and a high-speed Internet connection, he releases a fast-spreading computer virus that in a matter of minutes gives him control of thousands, perhaps millions, of personal computers and servers throughout the world.

This drone army launches a silent and sustained attack on computers that are crucial for sending around the billions of packets of data that keep e-mail, the Web and other, more basic necessities of modern life humming. At first the attack seems to be an inconvenience—e-mail traffic grinds to a halt, Web browsing is impossible. But then the problems spread to services only tangentially related to the Internet: automated-teller machines freeze up, calls to emergency numbers fail to get routed to police stations and ambulance services, airport- and train-reservation systems come down. After a few hours, the slowdown starts to affect critical systems: the computers that help run power grids, air-traffic control and telephone networks. Call it the worldwide muddle—a level of confusion that sometimes occurs during storms and power outages, but never before on a global scale.

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