The Long Island town of Lynbrook has cybersecurity on its mind and is prepared for the unimaginable scenario of a life without the internet.
New Yorkers are no strangers to service interruptions at the hands of their internet service providers — caused in part by networks and cloud computing moving through fewer companies. Local governments have also been plagued by ransomware attacks that cut them off from their computers and bring vital operations to a screeching halt.
A monthslong outage is much less likely than these short-term interruptions — but the Lynbrook officials who drafted a report want to be prepared, citing solar storms and terrorist attacks as possible long-term threats to connectivity. The Nassau County village laid out a contingency plan earlier this year in case the internet ever goes out for months.New York City, too, has a plan in place, officials said, although it’s not clear how long the Big Apple could go on without the internet.
The 11-page document, adopted in September and first reported on by Government Technology, lists analog replacements for government operations typically conducted online, like filing building permits, running payroll and dispatching emergency responders. “It is only a matter of time that major attacks on the nation’s internet infrastructure will occur,” the Lynbrook report reads, apocalyptically. “It is not a matter of if it will happen, it is a question of when.”
To create the plan for the 20,000-person village, Lynbrook officials sat down with the heads of each municipal department — from the court to the clerk’s office to firefighters and police. They listed each agency’s functions and whether they were dependent on internet access — then brainstormed alternatives that would allow the village government to operate even without a stable connection.
Many of the proposed replacements hearken back to the days before widespread internet. Meetings and legal notices would be faxed to a local newspaper rather than posted online. Parking tickets would be recorded in a logbook. The police department’s computer-aided dispatch would revert to radio.
The plan even includes the library and the recreation department, which would rely on locally stored catalogs and phone chains rather than websites to share their offerings. (Internet-reliant phone systems could also be affected by a widespread outage, experts noted.)
Jonathan Reichental, who once served as the California city of Palo Alto’s chief information officer and now runs a technology consulting firm and teaches at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management, praised the plan for its ambition.
“It’s remarkably progressive,” he said. “They’re thinking about it, and they’re acting on it. A lot of cities and communities could learn from it.”
New York City officials also have a detailed plan in place for internet outages, a practice called Citywide Continuity of Operations. Ines Bebea, a spokesperson for the NYC Office of Emergency Management, said city agencies are “encouraged” to come up with manual alternatives to digital processes in case of an outage.
City Councilmember Jennifer Gutiérrez, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Technology, said this type of preparation is essential for a metropolis as large and diverse as New York.
“If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s the importance of being prepared for the worst-case scenario,” she said in a statement to Gothamist. “While we need to continue to upgrade and digitize our government technology, we also have to be prepared to function without it.”
A 2018 report identified cyberattacks as the No. 1 threat to public health in New York City. Earlier this year, city and state officials spun up a joint cybersecurity center to defend against and respond to such threats.
“Technology runs our water, controls our electricity and notifies us during an emergency, so cyberattacks have the ability to bring our entire city to a halt if we are not prepared,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement announcing the cybersecurity effort.
Reichental said that once they’ve made plans, the best thing Lynbrook, New York City and other local governments can do is test them out, ideally in a tabletop exercise simulating a real-life internet outage. Simulations will help city officials bulletproof their plans and create backups for their backups, he added.
“We have to be able to imagine all sorts of possibilities and be brave enough to accept that they could happen,” he said. “And we have to be prepared.”