Google frequently runs hypothetical scenarios to test the robustness of its infrastructure, one of which has involved a surprise invasion from outer space, according to company executives. Head of security for Google Enterprise Eran Feigenbaum told journalists that last year the search engine provider considered what might happen to its operations if an alien invasion disabled the California headquarters:
“We play a lot of games here. Part of our disaster recovery plan is to assume the worst has happened. In last year’s scenario, Google was attacked by aliens and California was off the map. We asked: What do we do? How do we run our infrastructure?”
According to Feigenbaum, Google’s worldwide infrastructure is surprisingly robust. Multiple backups of customer data — for example the messages in your gmail account — can be recovered and transferred between data centers in case of an unanticipated failure. The company reportedly employs more than 250 data security experts to handle emergencies, and the teams are split between Zurich and San Francisco to allow for 24-hour worldwide coverage. It seems that even the most skillful alien hackers will have a difficult time getting at your data.
It is good to see an industry-leading company like Google take security and continuity of operations seriously, especially since most of the world depends on their services. It is difficult to imagine a more serious catastrophe than aliens wiping the entire state of California off the map, so clearly Google engineers have set the bar fairly high.
But how well would Google fare in the event of a far more serious threat to its worldwide search business: that of peaceful contact with aliens?
In the event of an invasion, most people will be busy running through the streets like lunatics, finding shelter under office furniture and forming small bands of resistance. Very few are likely to remain seated at their computers if an Independence Day scenario goes down. But what if the aliens are more cerebral, like the mysterious black obelisk in 2010, or the ones that carefully communicated with Jodi Foster in Contact? In those cases, with humanity’s curiosity piqued, we’d probably be more interested in asking questions than preparing molotov cocktails. And everyone knows what you do when you’ve got a particularly difficult question you just can’t answer.
Let’s imagine, for the purposes of this post, that aliens land on the White House lawn and emerge to give a brief presser alongside the president, in which they reveal that they come from a star in the Lyra constellation. After assuring us that they come in peace, they re-enter their spacecraft and zoom off to more important business.
One millisecond after the close of the press conference, the internet would be deluged with searches for:
“President Obama Lyra aliens”
“Where is Lyra”
“How far away is lyra?”
“Lyra aliens evil?”
… and the like. Data tracking firm ComScore estimates that on a normal day, Google receives about 34,000 search requests per second, which add up to 2 million per minute, 121 million per hour or 3 billion searches per day. Let’s imagine conservatively that on the day of alien contact, half of the computer-using population of the United States and Europe find out about the event within 2 hours of the landing. That comes to roughly 374,000,000 curious internet seekers. If each of those people enter an average of three searches into Google during the two hour time frame, that would come to 1.12 billion searches, or 561 million per hour, far more than on a normal day. And we’re not even considering Internet users in the rest of the world.
There is some precedent to help explain what might happen in the event of such a massive crush of users. In 2009, the unfortunate passing of Michael Jackson became a worldwide media event. On the evening of his death, traffic on the Internet swelled by 11 per cent above normal, according to tracking agency Akamai. Google’s servers interpreted the rapid and massive spike in queries related to Michael Jackson as some kind of automated attack, and this caused the service provider to disable search for a large number of users. The automatic shutoff is in place to protect legitimate users of Google from so-called distributed denial of service attacks, a technique used by hackers to overwhelm and block access to online sources.
In the case of a legitimate, worldwide media event such as an alien landing, it is clear that the automatic kill switch system, triggered by a spike in traffic of only 11% in the case of Michael Jackson’s death, would be completely unable to cope to a flood of identical search queries amounting to perhaps 400% of the normal traffic load. There are a lot of Michael Jackson fans in the world, but there are far more people who would be concerned about the implications of first contact with extraterrestrial beings. The question is, would they be able to have their burning questions answered by searching on Google?
Perhaps Google engineers should make this the topic of their hypothetical exercise this year. I hope they let us know what they come up with.