Internet erupts as Google goes down

First, you see the endless spinning of the wheel in your browser. Then, one by one, your application switch off as 404 pages and “oops, there was a problem” messages pop up across tabs and apps.

This morning’s Google outage lasted only a little over an hour. Gmail, YouTube, and a host of tools developed for workplaces, including Chat, Google Docs and Google Drive, all stopped working.

But what if, rather than inching back online, this downtime had lasted days? While service blips are increasingly a trivial annoyance of modern, digitally connected working, they could be the signal that triggers the next flash crash.

Our ever more interconnected world is relying on a dwindling number of Big Tech providers to ensure our apps stay online at all hours of the day.

With people working from home, we are also more reliant than ever on video chat services and instant messaging apps for communications that normally could have been relayed by walking over to someone’s desk.

Hospitals have turned to telemedicine and GP appointments are increasingly done over a phone call or via an app.

In a few years, cars will run almost entirely on software with artificially intelligent brains mapping the road ahead. What happens if all that just stops working? Will cars glide ominously to a halt as safety systems kick in? Do hospital appointments endlessly stack up as someone waits for a Big Tech firm somewhere to find the off and on switch?

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While we don’t know what was behind this latest outage, there is another threat we must worry about: Cyber attacks.

A major, globe-spanning outage or cyber attack may sound like science fiction. But the possibility is there and has already been felt in many parts of the world.

More than a decade ago, in 2007, the US and Israel were able to unleash a powerful cyberweapon, the Stuxnet malware, that ripped through Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and set it back years. Imagine if such a tool was turned against Britain’s powerplants, or a nationstate hacker was able to find a so-called “zero-day” exploit in Google’s apps.

Cyber attacks that might look like something out of a video game are not just fantasy. Take a recent zero-day exploit found in iPhone software.

A Google researcher was able to find a bug in iPhones that allowed a hacker who came within a few metres of any iPhone to automatically take remote control of them, even hacking multiple devices at once.

The most troubling hack in recent memory was the 2017 Wannacry ransomware. This bug, built using cyber weapons stolen from US security services, spread like wildfire among out of date Windows PCs, shutting down swathes of the NHS and costing £92m.

Over the last two weeks, the stakes have been raised again. Nation-state hackers have, again, stolen cyber weapons that it is feared could be turned against governments. And today, there are reports of another exploit found in a software provider who works with dozens of national governments. GCHQ’s cyber spooks are investigating.

The world is more connected than ever. Increasingly, this power held by a few tech giants that answer to shareholders first.

While they may have the tools and expertise at hand to minimise the impact of shutdowns such as today, the unforeseen risks that exist out there in cyber space could, one day, find their weak spot.

As one expert, tech investor Benedict Evans, points out: “The cloud is someone else’s computer.”

Sudden cutouts, such as Google’s downtime on Monday, should be a sobering reminder to have a plan B for the time their apps do not magically come back on.

– Telegraph Media Group

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