A frozen moment in time brought a hush


A hush came over the building. There were no beeps coming from the computer terminals, no rustling of bags or ripping of receipts at the checkout counter. There we were standing in line when the word spread backwards that all the computers were down at Walmart, and since they were down for at least a half-hour, we heard a message repeated every few minutes, explaining that the computers were “frozen at this moment” and they were working on the problem.

To the credit of the people in line, I didn’t see anyone become irate and demand service, and didn’t even hear any babies cry! It was as if people accepted the down time, maybe even appreciated a breather from their hectic schedules. It did get me thinking about what might happen if there were a broader scale shutdown of computers. I read a CNN commentary by David Eagleman regarding possible causes for wide-scale computer shutdowns. He suggested there were four.

Solar flares could have a serious impact on the computer world, and Eagleman cited an incident in 1998 when Galaxy IV, a $250 million American satellite, spun out of control due to a solar flare. Satellites from Germany, Japan, NASA and Motorola also were lost, and the ripples were worldwide.  80 percent of the pagers went down as well as NPR, CBS and some internet services. Over the past few years several other satellites met a common fate.

Secondly, cyber warfare could affect military targets and multinational corporations. Viruses and “worms” created by an enemy have the potential to wreak a lot of havoc. Eagleman told about the Stuxnet worm a few years ago that got into Iranian industrial systems and brought wreckage to their factory operations.

A third possibility of mass computer shutdown could be by political mandate. Iran and Egypt have already done it, and Chinese officials have been pursuing the capability to do so in their country. Eagleman said in 2010, the Homeland Security Committee in the United States Senate approved a bill giving the president authority to use an internet “kill switch” in the event of a cyber-attack. That portion of the bill was eventually struck down, and most Internet security analysts believe that was wise, because shutting down the Web would hamper news, communication and crisis information gathering.

Last, cable-cutting could bring a stop to internet communication. Apparently, 99 percent of web traffic around the globe is controlled by fiber optic networks under the sea. In 2008, cables were cut between Egypt and India as well as between the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Other cables were cut in the Persian Gulf near Iran and off the coast of Malaysia.

Eagleman said there is a global seed vault on the island of Svalbard in the Arctic that contains spare copies of seeds that are in gene banks worldwide. In case a global crisis occurred and all the crops were destroyed, the agricultural system could be rebooted using the spare copies.

He proposes a similar backup plan for human knowledge, a vault that contains information on electricity, how to build computers and routers, so the world could be up and running again.

We are there — so dependent on the computer world — and for those of us whose parents told us about the first time they had electricity, it is a hard fact of life. Likely, there is no going back. A half hour at Walmart, a minor inconvenience, but a worldwide shutdown would hamper life as we know it.