Big Question: Could a hacker take down the Internet?

Curiosity contributor and TechStuff blogger Jonathan Strickland offered his analysis on the prospect of a hacker bringing the Internet to its knees.

There's no question that hackers could cause a great deal of damage with the right sort of attack -- it's something we've seen happen to multiple companies, organizations and even countries. A few high-profile attacks have targeted critical systems like power grids and nuclear facilities.

In 2009, The Telegraph reported that hackers -- possibly located in Russia and China -- had infiltrated power grid systems within the United States to learn more about the infrastructure itself. And in 2010, The Christian Science Monitor reported that the Stuxnet virus, which infected computers around the world, was really targeting nuclear facilities in Iran. The apparent purpose of the malware was to speed up centrifuges within a nuclear facility to cause a massive systems failure. Other hacker attacks, both those sponsored by nations and those carried out by independent hackers, have hit computer systems around the world. While none of these attacks have precipitated a true catastrophe, the potential for disaster is very real.

But the Internet itself is incredibly robust. That's by design -- the architects behind the Internet built it so that it could operate even when parts of the system go offline. Without this design element, the Internet wouldn't be nearly as useful.

Imagine that the Internet is a massive city with hundreds of interconnecting streets. You're on one side of the city and you need to deliver a package to the other end. There are dozens of potential routes you could take. You strike out on a likely pathway but before you can get to your destination, you discover one of the streets you were planning to take has been shut down. This slows you down but it doesn't stop you -- after all, there are plenty of other ways to get to where you're going.

That's the nature of the Internet -- the information you send and receive can take one of millions of different pathways. In fact, the data traveling to and from your computer moves in packets. It's like you're shipping and receiving jigsaw puzzles piece-by-piece and each piece could follow its own pathway. After you receive all your pieces, you can put them together to make a complete picture. The Internet treats data the same way.

There are several benefits to this approach but perhaps the most important is that data finds a way to get around obstacles. If an Internet server between your computer and the machine with which you're communicating goes down, the data can still make its way to the right machine. So a hacker trying to take down the Internet would have to somehow disrupt hundreds of thousands of servers across the globe.

Such a herculean task is extremely implausible. A hacker might manage to disrupt a part of the Internet's infrastructure and that would certainly slow things down. Hackers can also target specific servers to take down machines so that they can't serve up information on the Internet. If that happens, the information you're trying to access may be unavailable. But you'll still be able to navigate to other machines on the Internet -- assuming yours wasn't the machine brought down by the hacker.

It's dangerous to call any system perfect. After all, the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable. But the engineers who built the Internet were thinking ahead. They needed a system that could be flexible and resilient. That's exactly what the Internet is today, and it's not likely any hacker will take it down in the foreseeable future.