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Where is the Internet, and How Does it Work?

Updated on May 26, 2017
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William has written five books, on topics ranging from technological fiction to office humor, and is the owner of Bayla Publishing.

Is data traversing now?
Is data traversing now?

Where is the Internet?

As I look up from my computer and glance out the window at the telephone wires, I wonder: is data flowing through those very lines? I hit Enter, and quickly look again at the wires.

Is that where my data just went?

The Wires

In an increasingly wireless world, we tend to take physical wires for granted, but most electronic communications still race across the wired world. That telephone pole in front of your house is a potential witness to any number of texts, emails, or browses. It is conceivable that even as you watch, data is traversing the sagging phone line.

This provokes a question.

How vulnerable are those wires? They are physically nearby, and unprotected. What would prevent someone with the technical capability from getting close enough to tap into those wires, and intercept that data?

The answer is, that's not going to happen, at least not in plain view. However, even though you can't see someone with wire cutters and a pair of alligator clips accessing your data across the street, it doesn't mean it's not happening somewhere.

A Network of Networks

As it turns out, the Internet isn't just those wires across from your house, but is a network of networks. Data leaves your PC or other smart device through cable, the phone lines, satellite, cellular, or whatever other transmission technology you are using. It leaves your house, and is connected by your service provider to a network.

If you still connect to the Internet via your phone line, your data is probably flowing across the the phone line across the street.

Once your data hits the world beyond your house, it is connected to even larger networks, which find the quickest way to get your message to its final destination. This may be a website in another city, or even a PC idown the hall.

Packet Switching

The data that makes this journey does not do so in one big chunk. Rather, it is divided up into smaller chunks, called packets, and each packet travels alone to its destination. Upon arrival, all of the individual packets are reassembled into the original big chunk. This technology is called packet-switching.

Each one of these packets can take a different route to get from the originating computer to the destination computer. Thus, if you send a message from New York to San Diego, some of your packets may go through St. Louis, some may go through Austin, Texas, some may go through Denver. They may all go the same way, or they may take different routes.

This is determined by devices called routers, specialized computers that maintain lists of known network device addresses. The routers ‘know’ where there is congestion on the Net, where segments may be down, and what the quickest pathway is at that moment. This analysis is constant, and occurs in milliseconds.

Where is It?

Fiber optic lines run in tunnels beneath city streets, across telephone poles, buried underground, or even above ceiling tiles in office buildings. Not all wires are fiber optic, and of course, increasingly much data is sent without using wires at all, as wireless technology proliferates and untold trillions of bytes of data flow everywhere.

Some of that data is yours. I know it is, because you are reading this, but this leads back to the question of how the data could be tapped, and why.

The NSA, Utah, and You.

There is no need to physically tap into telephone lines. Technology has advanced to the point where virtually all communications can be electronically tapped, and saved to massive databases for a leisurely analysis of topics of interest.

For example, the NSA has built the largest spy center ever, in Utah, which is capable of intercepting and storing virtually all electronic communications. Using modern data analysis tools, patterns can be isolated, and investigations enabled.

Hopefully the government is not interested in the online communications of ninety-nine per cent of the population, but at least they won't need wire cutters and alligator clips to do the job.

Interestingly, according to the article below, "the government currently possesses copies of almost all emails sent and received in the United States."

Even Google reports that government surveillance is increasing:

Blurring of Lines

The Internet is a vast enterprise, with telecom companies maintaining major networks nationwide. The number of devices that make up the Internet is phenomenal, and the number of miles of wire immense, and growing. It is also largely invisible, and not understood very well by the public.

Technology makes communication easier, but it also makes it more susceptible to violation. Just keep that in mind the next time you click send.


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