Danny Hillis: The Internet could crash. We need a Plan B


Danny Hillis is an inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While completing his doctorate at MIT, he pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID array.


Danny was one of the first users of the internet – back in 1982 when everyone’s email address and contact details were printed large print in a thin phone book. All users trusted each other, taking only what they needed (domain names) and passing messages on each other’s behalf when bandwidth was low. He jokes that it is remarkable such communist ideals underwrote the US defense department’s efforts during the cold war.

Trust is much lower nowadays, and we are dealing with this by making smaller walled networks: VPNs and subnetworks – that imitate the internet on a smaller scale. The internet protocols are still vulnerable to attack and silly mistakes – for example Youtube was blocked in all of Asia because of an error in Pakistan’s protocols. Recently a mistake was made by Chinese telecom where a large proportion of US internet traffic (including defence networks) went through China – whether or not this action was a mistake it is easy to see how this can be abused by someone doing it intentionally. Industrial control networks can be crippled – these systems do not think of themselves as part of the internet, but they can be made vulnerable for example an Iranian nuclear plant’s centrifuges destroyed themselves in a cyber-attack.

Internet security tends to focus on the target’s computers, and not on the internet itself. An early bug in ARPAnet caused one router to claim it could deliver a packet in negative time, and other routers looking for quickest delivery sent everything through it. To fix this bug they had to reset the whole internet: a process which would be impossible now with so many other systems reliant on it. The internet protocols and building blocks are now being used in ways and systems that it wasn’t designed for, such as mobile phone networks, rocket ship communications, petrol pumps. It has become a system where people understand the individual components, but noone can understand the scale of the system and how it fits together. It was a small system originally built on trust, and now expanded well beyond how it was intended.

Danny proposes we need a separate system independent of the internet as a ‘backup’ if the internet is taken down by an attack. It needn’t be as big and wouldn’t be complicated to design, just something to allow emergency services to keep communication going. It is one of the easiest TED ideas to implement, we just need to convince people that it is worth doing.

My Thoughts

Danny’s discussion of the internet in its early days is fascinating, however I’m not entirely sure what he is asking us to do now. He mentions police need to talk to fire services – is he just advocating that phone networks or radios stay independent of the internet? How does independence work anyway: he said himself that industrial / military networks are designed to be separate from the internet but are vulnerable to attack regardless.

He mentions the technical details are easy to design – perhaps he should put a proposal forward with a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy, so we can clearly see what he is proposing and what functionality it would give. Until then it is hard to imagine what we need from a ‘backup internet’.