Red alert! Sinking into an Internet black hole?

It seems like a full-fledged red alert when I can't connect to the Internet. Some experts may have figured out the why and the how to fix these outages, but will the cure making hacking harder or easier for cyber-criminals? 

Have you ever had one of those days when you reboot the router but you still can't access anything on the Internet?  Those unexplained outages might be caused by Internet "black holes"-places where data can't get in or out. Some scientists estimate as many as 2 million temporary black holes come and go every day. One reason for these black holes are the routing difficulties caused by more than a billion Internet users at a time. As more people and devices connect to the Net, stressing routers and their ability to pass data packets, some scientists worry that the Net might permanently collapse into a black hole.

New research offers hope that hyperbolic mapping could stress routers less and reduces the number of black holes. Dmitri Krioukov from the University of California, San Diego, explained the router problems during an IEEE podcast. Krioukov said to imagine that you need to find a route on a road, but you have no maps or GPS. In fact, all you have is an extremely long list of all the roads in the whole world and all the intersections of those roads. A road along the route might be closed for some reason, but the long list does not have this update. It would be unimaginably difficult to use this long list of road names to find a route for where you needed to go. This is similar to the task that routers perform. It's also why the Net is having all these temporary black hole problems.

Every router has a long list with all the roads and all the intersections throughout the world. The router acts like a traffic cop at each intersection, looking at every arriving piece of information, asking it where it wants to go, then looking back at the list to direct the information via the shortest and best route. These router traffic cops need to replace the long lists of roads and intersections with something that looks like a navigational map to route data much more efficiently. This navigation could be done with hyperbolic mapping.

According to a statement issued by the San Diego Supercomputer Center, Krioukov said, "It is very complicated, inefficient, and difficult to scale to the rapidly growing size of the Internet, which is now accessed by more than a billion people each day. In fact, we are already seeing parts of the Internet become intermittently unreachable, sinking into so-called black holes, which is a clear sign of instability."

The image below is a hyperbolic atlas of the Internet, as built and described in the Nature Communications paper. It shows the locations of Internet systems on the hyperbolic plane.


Image courtesy of Dmitri Krioukov, SDSC/CAIDA

Krioukov and his colleagues at CAIDA have been managing a project called Archipelago, or Ark, that constantly monitors the topology of the Internet, or the structure of its interconnections. They believe the severe stress to the Internet infrastructure and the existing Internet routing architecture may collapse in another decade or so. Krioukov said that improvements to critical infrastructure through hyperbolic mapping could be accomplished with incremental deployment; some routers use the hyperbolic atlas while others use the long lists. "There are many technical and non-technical issues to be resolved before the Internet map that we found would be the map that the Internet uses," he warns.

I asked Dmitri Krioukov how hyperbolic mapping would be applied in regards to security?

Krioukov said they haven't spent much time thinking about the security aspects of the proposed routing modifications yet, but he came up with one possibility. "With today's routing protocols, it's always a danger out there that those protocols can be attacked, e.g., an attacker can inject some malicious routing information into the system, hi-jacking or misdirecting traffic to wrong destinations. In our case, we don't have any routing protocols, as coordinates are fixed once and forever, therefore the (potential) threat above is removed." He also stressed that he is not a security expert.

So I'm asking you, the readers, do you think this scenario would be potentially more secure or more insecure? Would it make it easier to hack the fixed routes that would save us from sinking into a black hole?

Hyperbolic mapping and routing modifications may save the Internet from collapsing into a massive black hole. The improvement to our critical infrastructure may cause a new need for more security professionals. But a final warning . . . if you miss a work deadline or an online conference meeting, your boss may not believe you were temporarily sucked into a mysterious Internet black hole.

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