One way to shut down a website is to send repeated requests for information to a site, which overwhelms the computer server.

Often this is due to some big blogger (e.g. Drudge) linking to a site.

But more commonly it is due to a virus that automatically sends out the request over and over again, and although sometimes this is due to mischief, it is also used in cyberwarfare.

In April 2008, CNN had to limit users after one such attack, reportedly from many Chinese citizens in a coordinated “attack” that shut down their site for several hours in the early morning.

The cyberwarfare going on in today’s world rarely gets noted, but it is real and government computers are especially a target.

When I worked for the US Public Health Service, our system once was shut down by one attack or virus, so we could not access a lot of patient information. Luckily, we hadn’t switched yet to electronic medical records yet, so just had to rely on our paper charts. But it is one reason that I am leery of the push for electronic medical records.

So, anyway, last week, the huge computers of Google almost crashed after Micheal Jackson’s death due to the large number of searches using that search.

Chart from Google blog.

As Google explains:

The spike in searches related to Michael Jackson was so big that Google News initially mistook it for an automated attack. As a result, for about 25 minutes yesterday, when some people searched Google News they saw a “We’re sorry” page before finding the articles they were looking for.

Nor was Google the only site that crashed. According to PC Authority,

The Los Angeles Times web site also crashed soon after it broke the news of Jackson’s death.

Twitter’s infamous ‘Fail Whale’ was also called into action as servers at the micro-blogging site crashed as 66,000 Tweets were made within a 60-minute period.

So the death of Jackson was a good practice run for the future, when maybe a real cyberattack will be mounted in an attempt to shut down the internet.

We know about the vulnerability of the internet, since the December 2006 earthquake cut the cable south of Taiwan, and we were off line for two months.

The internet is vulnerable not only to natural disaster, but to mischief and to deliberate attack.

So if your business relies on the internet, make sure you have a backup just in case.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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