How much do you rely on the Internet in your daily life? Would it become more or less necessary to you in a time of crisis (say, a natural disaster or a military take-over)? How would you access crucial information and communicate with coworkers and loved ones if you lost access to the Internet, temporarily or indefinitely?
There’s some debate on prepper blogs and forums about the role that information and communications technology (IT and ICT) should play in a survival scenario, but most of the debate is shallow and ideological rather than technical. We think it’s worth reexamining the question: ‘Is the best prepper tech necessarily low tech?’
It’s worth looking at the definition of ‘appropriate technology,’ a term often used to describe the sorts of everyday tools that we should aim to make use of, or that governments and NGOs should aim to equip communities with in order to make them as independent and resilient as possible. Wikipedia defines appropriate tech as ‘encompassing technological choice and application that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous.’ Appropedia defines appropriate tech as:
Note that low tech is never explicitly favored over high tech. Appropriate technology favors labor-intensiveness over capital-intensiveness, but only in a general sense, where labor is more freely available to everyone than capital. Decentralization has always been essential to the way the Internet works. The distribution of hardware and software among countless locations and providers means that it’s very difficult for power outages, bugs, or oppressive / censoring forces to take down any significant portion of the Internet for very long. The hardware and energy required to access the Internet is not universally available, and remains out of reach for billions of people on the planet, but compared to delivering the educational contents of the web via millions of volumes of hardcopy books, the Internet is sustainable, small in a way that empowers grassroots and independent users/publishers, and adaptable in a way that helps make it more appropriate for more contexts (E.g. being able to translate a web page with the touch of a browser button).
Most preppers experience ICT as fundamentally a good thing, and worth relying on as a key tool to help us become less reliant on other more dispensable technologies as we aim for self-sufficiency and autonomy. The Internet allows us to be more informed about and engaged with democracy, and to learn about ways of managing healthy communities autonomously. We can find out about preventative medicine that makes us less reliant on highly specialized knowledge that may be geographically remote and expensive to access, and we can share the successes and lessons of our DIY and social experiments with individuals and communities from whom we are separated by vast distances and oceans. Far from abandoning the low-tech knowledge of vanishing generations, the Internet has helped preserve the incredibly valuable techniques, traditions and languages of our elders, ready to be found by a new generation of enthusiasts who appreciate a deeper relationship with the land and the ability to own the means of production. The Internet gives us all the nitty-gritty recipes and instructions we need to learn how to grow our own food, make our own homes, customize our hardware, design bicycle-powered water pumps, and set up our whisky stills (because, for the love of Cthulu, there’d better be whisky after the apocalypse).
Let’s be clear: an EMP crisis doesn’t mean that your personal tech is going to stop working. At least, not as we currently understand the EMP threat. Some prepper blogs (see example) seem to think that an EMP attack would mean that every laptop, thumb-drive and smart thermostat in the country would automatically stop working, and that by incorporating tech into your survival strategy you just have to sort of assume the risk that at any time it could all drop dead like the sentinels out of the Matrix. It doesn’t work this way.
Even an attack that takes down significant portions of the electricity grid and/or Internet infrastructure would have to be carried out as a series of acutely targeted attacks on central distribution centers and server farms. This means that unless you happen to live across the road from a target, your personal equipment won’t be affected by the pulse. The same surge-protection measures that protect your computer from sudden spikes caused by lightening and outlet faults will work just as well if central power distribution centers are shut down by an EMP.
A strong enough, well-coordinated attack could potentially take out swathes of the country’s land-based electricity grids, and separate EMP blasts could potentially disrupt or permanently fry GPS satellites or their planet-side control centers. But there’s a lot of redundancy built into the system, and if a city loses access to the Internet or the Global Positioning System, that loss is likely to be temporary. There are dozens of functioning GPS satellites waiting in the wings in case the current ones go dark (although they’re mostly owned by China, Russia and Korea, so a bit of political negotiation might be required to integrate them into the existing network rather than just switching to the redundant networks).
So in a scenario where the grids go dark, we’re looking at two interrelated possibilities that could cut your access to the Internet: the power grid that feeds electricity into your house goes down, or the ISPs (internet service providers) can’t do their job. These are interrelated because the ISPs require power to work, and many of the functions that keep power plants and electricity distribution networks running like clockwork involve a lot of IT-based sensing and automation. Power companies and ISPs have plenty of incentive not to let this happen: they want to keep their customers happy, sure, but more importantly they’re governed by Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that financially penalize them any time a big enough part of their service is down for long enough.
In order for ISPs to stop being able to distribute the Internet, we’re looking at another split and/or scenario: a significant amount of the local ISP servers would have to lose power or be brought offline by software attacks, and/or a significant chunk of the root nameservers go down. An attack on these root nameserves is basically an attack on the whole Internet, since they are necessary for the DNS (Domain Name System) to function properly. According to Pingdom.com, if all the root nameservers stopped working, DNS lookups would gradually start failing, and the Internet would gradually stop working. This is because local DNS servers only cache domain name translations for a small amount of time before they have to check in with the root nameservers again. Within minutes of all root nameservers going down, some DNS lookups would start failing. By the end of the day, most would be failing.
Back in 2002, a DDoS attack on the G root nameserver in the US had a significant impact, and made it clear that the current redundancy levels built into the system weren’t enough. At the time, there were only 13 root nameserver locations in 4 countries. There are still only 13 root nameservers (named for A through M), but a routing protocol called anycast has allowed the system to distribute requests over a larger number of different locations. By 2007, that number was up to 123, and as of December 2016 there are 642 root nameserver locations across the world.
Anyone is smart enough to build a system he or she can’t break, but we don’t know what could happen in the future. Right now, it seems unlikely that the Internet could go down, only that localized access to it could be cut off. In these scenarios, it’s likely that tech gadgets and autonomous networks will be part of the survival solution. If the lights go out, we needn’t be reduced to tin cans and string.
As we’ve seen above, in the case of a run-of-the-mill power outage or even a widespread targeted EMP attack, your personal electronics are going to survive unscathed. So your personal computer is fine, and your laptop is even better if it has a few hours’ worth of charge to keep it going while you work on overcoming the situation. The router that bounces Wi-Fi around your house is fine, although it needs power to work and that power just went out. Perhaps surprisingly, your telephone landline still works: your phone line is powered by two dedicated copper wires that run between your house and your phone company ‘directly’ (i.e. not via your power distribution company). These wires are almost always buried, so storms and hurricanes won’t cut them. The phone company operates an extensive system of batteries and back-up generators to keep your phone lines working when the rest of the power to your area stops, in order to not breach their SLAs.
For the same reasons, your ISP is more resilient to power-outages than your average neighborhood block. But your router needs power in order to pass that connection on to your devices. In the short term, and without much specialized equipment, you can keep your access to the Internet for a few hours after the lights go out. If you have a laptop with a (full or partially) charged battery, you can power most routers using a cable that has a male DC connection on one side and a male USB connection on the other (see example). If your ‘laptop’ is an iPad, then you’re screwed, but iPads screwing people over is nothing new.
In the longer term, a decent-sized solar power system that lets you charge devices directly or via small-scale batteries (i.e. without touching the main electricity grid) can run your computer/laptop and modem both, and maybe even keep a few of the lights on as well.
Stay tuned for coming articles on the tech that you can use to set up an Internet hotspot anywhere without ISP or mobile phone coverage.