Why Did I Actually Have to Work Last Thursday Morning? (or: how a politically-based tech attack shut down MY social networking)

In an interview with the Guardian, a Georgian blogger known as Cyxymu says the Russian government is responsible for last Thursday’s denial-of-service disruptions on several popular social networking sites that left hundreds of millions of web users worldwide with a largely smaller connection to those around them. Countless others have reported being bored to tears in cubicles and offices, from about 9-11:30am ET, on Thursday (editor’s shameless plug: the HeadCount blog was wholly unaffected during the attack and ready to host your curiosity from music to politics…and everything in between).

Cyxymu, a 34-year-old economics lecturer whose real name is Georgy, said an organized attack directed at him, on “order from the Russian government,” is to blame for disruptions to Twitter, Facebook, and LiveJournal the night before the one year anniversary of the five-day Georgia-Russia war in South Ossetia. His claim was later confirmed by Max Kelly, Facebook's chief security officer, as well as by independent internet security experts. Cyxymu believes his criticism for Russia’s conduct during the conflict was the motivation for the attack. The blogger’s handle is actually a reference to the capital of Georgia’s other breakaway region – Abkhazia.

Silencing Cyxymu, and Cyxymu alone, would have required access to his password, so the attackers went after the sites on the whole – shutting down Twitter and severely slowing Facebook and LiveJournal. It seems tens of thousands of computers, previously compromised by viruses, were directed by the attacker to visit the specific websites simultaneously and repeatedly.

There’s a fancy technical explanation buried in an early report on the incident. I’ll break it down for you: when Donny tried to coyly let Julie know he had an extra to Phish’s Friday night show at The Gorge and couldn’t pull up her Facebook profile, it’s because that bandwidth was already being given to the attacker’s request. Bummer.

To attempt to explain the impact social networking websites have come to have on our world would be daunting, to say the least. I think the most effective way to do this is to ask everyone reading this to think about the ways they use these sites on a daily basis and what it would mean to lose access to your: breaking news, social life, business networking, problem solving, festival set times*, office boredom solutions, restaurant reviews, calendar of events, on-tour car pool solutions, announcement distribution channels, communication with friends and loved ones, interaction with your favorite music artist & news about their projects…you get the idea.

The cliché is that: hindsight is 20/20. But, boy, did this really blow up in the face of Cyxymu’s detractors. On Wednesday, he had about 100 followers which, from my experience, seems on par for anyone putting in a small effort to maintain their account. As of writing this article, Cyxymu’s Twitter account boasted 2,423 followers, including the addition of yours truly. In what’s surely now become a major blunder from their perspective, the incident has given a much larger virtual voice to the very opinions the attackers had hoped to suppress. Naturally, Twitter and the rest have picked up some more buzz (if that’s possible) along the way.

What’s getting me, however, is the ease at which this all went down. To say that this could happen to any of us is a bit of an exaggeration (though it could). But what is really at risk here is the stability of these sites in an age where so many have come to rely on them for so much. Not just in the face of some possible disaster, where the course of events may shut down your digital world for whatever reason, but in the course of our daily lives.

If this were to happen again randomly, and even seemingly not “to you,” would you know how to get to your job interview later in the day? Or what time it was at? Would the people you care about be able to get a hold of you? Would your business effectively shut down? Would you know what song your favorite band opened up with half way across the world? This is to say nothing of the obvious First Amendment issues (as you may know, in the words of Walter Sobchak, the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint).

This should serve as a wakeup call to the curators of these networking sites. They are the ones reaping the financial benefits of our reliance on, and trust in, their sites – are they able to protect us in the ways they’ve promised? Did they previously believe this to be unrealistic? Just as our bridges and highways are monitored and maintained, perhaps, our information superhighway needs a bit of protection as well.

More importantly, however, this is a wakeup call to all the citizens of the social networking age (which, by the way, I don’t see fading any time soon) to realize just how intertwined our lives have become with these services. Gone are the days of: “Jane is out for a walk, I’ll leave her a message.” We’ll never get back: “John is at lunch, can he call you when he returns?” We now have instant access to the people and knowledge in our various social networks. Instant access to reach individuals and information directly and, often, we expect instant access to a reply or solution. I’m not saying this is necessarily a “bad thing.” But what if you didn’t have that tomorrow? Would YOU remember what to do? Or how to interact? Would you be able to solve (insert problem here)?

* I was surprised to learn, while writing this, that Twitter already owes a debt of gratitude to the live music community, particularly the 2007 edition of SXSW).