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Internet connectivity — even in 2024 — is vulnerable at a number of levels

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, here's a scary scenario. You wake up to find that your phone network is out. You can't make calls, check your email, confirm your doctor's appointment, map out your route, and you think, have hackers declared war? Don't panic. It turns out there are plenty of reasons other than hacking that explain why the internet could go down in 2024. NPR's Jenna McLaughlin explains.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: On March 14, major swathes of western and southern Africa went offline, thanks to a rock slide underwater. In Pakistan in February, government officials cut off internet browsing on mobile devices, arguing it was necessary to prevent violence as voters headed to the polls. In Ukraine and Gaza, bombs and missiles have destroyed networks, isolating people at war from the rest of the world for days and weeks at a time. And in the U.S. in late February, AT&T customers lost network service because someone made a mistake while updating the network.

DAVID BELSON: The internet is very vulnerable at a number of different levels.

MCLAUGHLIN: That's David Belson. He leads data analysis at Cloudflare. The technology company comes out with quarterly reports about internet disruptions around the world.

BELSON: They're the things that people don't think about until they break - you know, submarine cables and those sorts of pieces of infrastructure.

MCLAUGHLIN: This year so far, in over 120 countries, Belson and his team have tracked disruptions caused by cables damaged underwater, cyberattacks, government action, power outages, technical errors and war. I asked Belson if the internet is becoming more vulnerable, given how many different ways it can be disrupted, on purpose or by accident. The good and the bad news is he doesn't think it's getting worse. We're just more aware of it.

BELSON: I think the continued importance of the internet to everyday life, you know, with more and more things moving online, I'm reading stories recently about people where their doctor's office basically requires them to be online in order to interact with them, things like that.

MCLAUGHLIN: As we depend more and more on being connected, experts need to prioritize defending against potential threats to connectivity, Belson says. That includes things like clearly labeling underseas cables, for example, so ships don't drop their anchors on them. It also means preparing for global events that could cause disruptions.

BELSON: I think one of the interesting things to watch over the course of this year will be - it's a big year for elections, as well as the Olympics, so I think we're going to see both potential disruptions around the world, as well as, you know, spikes in traffic.

MCLAUGHLIN: But, Belson says, it's important not to panic.

BELSON: More often than not, it's something getting screwed up, as opposed to a massive-scale cyberattack.

MCLAUGHLIN: So not always a massive cyberattack - sometimes just an ordinary mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCLAUGHLIN: Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.