The Dunkirk Spirit

The last twelve months may have revealed some uncomfortable gaps in our critical national infrastructure (CNI) that is if you accept that the Internet is part of the package.

Sobig, you may remember played havoc with the BT network and few Internet Service Providers remained working at full capacity as they fended-off one attack after another in the late summer. “We were a little more prepared than BT”, says my own ISP, “But it certainly slowed down our network”.

They hadn't patched....!

These were however, nuisance incidents and business tottered-on, even though many, my own included, had to resort to using a dial-up account when broadband access disappeared for hours at a time.

This year, it may happen again and I doubt many Computer Weekly readers are prepared to bet that 2004 will be a more incident-free year than 2003. As each month passes, the Internet becomes more mission critical to the interests of the nation and I wonder if government are really giving the matter sufficient attention.

Instant communications now has a criticality, which it never quite possessed in the past. Experience shows us that when communications systems fail, they often fail catastrophically, like power outages, leaving large sections of the country cut-off and paralysed from a business perspective.

In the UK, we find our Internet communications centralised around the large ‘pipes’ that connect us with the rest of the world. As an example, Telehouse, in Docklands is a locus for five major networks and manages 80% of London’s communications capacity. Clustered around Telehouse are a number of other companies providing rack space, security and communications for hundreds if not thousands of businesses and if you happen to be looking outside London, then there’s Oswestry, BT’s principal communications centre.

We have, in an age of global terrorism, many, if not all of our eggs in a single basket and I worry over the level of our failover capacity in the event of a concerted viral or physical attack on our communications infrastructure.

Last year, Oliver Letwin suggested that we consider establishing an agency similar to the US Department of Homeland Security. Home Secretary, David Blunkett, promptly shot the idea down in flames. I am not completely in favour of following every example which comes out of Washington but in this case, I think we need to seriously consider protecting our vital communications infrastructure with a well-funded agency and not by committee, which is what I see at present and with it, the risk of a ‘Digital Dunkirk’ one day in the future.

What we have today, is an example of gesture politics and no real understanding of the seriousness of the problem”, said a friend in a conversation on the subject at Westminster. I do hope he’s wrong.


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