FEATURES & COMMENTARY
London, ENGLAND — The complex structure of the Internet makes it resistant to errors or failure but it is also its Achilles’ heel, scientists in the United States said on Wednesday. Because the system is so varied, if one or more nodes – the crossroads through which Internet data travel – goes down it has very little impact.
But researchers at Notre Dame University in Indiana, who have analyzed the connections within the Internet, have found if the networks with the most highly connected nodes were attacked by cyberterrorists, it could fragment the Web into isolated parts.
“The Achilles heel (of the Internet) is that the structure has this double feature. Like Achilles it is very hard to kill it but if you know something about the system then you could,” Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, a structural physicist, said in a telephone interview.
An estimated three percent of nodes are down at an given time but no one notices because the system copes with it.
“The reason this is so is because there are a couple of very big nodes and all messages are going through them. But if someone maliciously takes down the biggest nodes you can harm the system in incredible ways. You can very easily destroy the function of the Internet,” he added.
Barabasi, whose research is published in the science journal Nature, compared the structure of the Internet to the airline network of the United States.
The majority of airports are small but they are all connected to much larger hubs – cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles.
“That’s exactly the situation on the Internet: there are a couple of hubs that are crucial to the system,” he explained. These big hubs or nodes control the traffic in the system.
If the Internet hubs are taken out simultaneously there would be a serious problem, but Barabasi said the probability of random errors hitting the big nodes is very small.
In a commentary on the research, Yuhai Tu of the IBM TJ Watson Research Center in New York said the research is a first step towards understanding the robustness of the Internet.
“The good news is that we do not have to worry about random fluctuations of these networks. The bad news is that Internet terrorists could cause great damage by targeting the most connected router,” he said.