How Do You Shut Down the Internet in a Whole Country?

Natalie Wolchover, Life’s Little Mysteries Staff Writer
Date: 28 January 2011 Time: 02:12 PM ET
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REPRINT TODAY IN VIEW OF THIS…TOO (ASS WELL FOR BRITS):

According to David Clark, an MIT computer scientist whose research focuses on Internet architecture and development, a government’s ability to control the Internet depends on its control of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the private sector companies that grant Internet access to customers.To silence dissidents, the Egyptian government made a move Jan. 28 that has no precedent: It turned off the Internet nationwide. How did they do it — and could the same thing happen here?

“ISPs have direct control of the Internet, so what happens in any country depends on the control that the state has over those ISPs,” Clark told Life’s Little Mysteries in an e-mail. “Some countries regulate the ISPs much more heavily. China has in the past ‘turned off’ the Internet in various regions.”

When a government orders the ISP to disable service, Clark explained, “they have lots of ways of doing it technically. They could power down devices (which is sort of like unplugging things), or change the routing tables (which is more like a “digital kill,” and can serve to allow selective services to stay up).”

[INFOGRAPHIC: How to Kill the Internet]

In Egypt’s case, the government owns the main service provider (Telecom Egypt), according to William Lehr, another Internet expert at MIT. “[This allows the Egyptian state to wage] significant control over the international telecom interconnection facilities that provide the physical transport for the international Internet connections,” Lehr wrote to Life’s Little Mysteries. “Shutting off those circuits effectively shuts off the traffic from Egypt to the rest of the world that occurs over those circuits.”

Whether or not other governments—for example, the U.S. government—are able to shut down the Internet is “a regulatory question,” said Clark. “In a time of crisis, does a government have the powers to compel the ISPs to take such an action?” In the U.S., the answer is no – not only does President Barack Obama, or any president, not have access to a physical “switch” that turns off the Internet, he also has no control over ISPs.

That could change, however, if the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset” bill, introduced in the Senate last summer, ever passes. The bill would effectively give the president an Internet kill-switch to be used in cases of national cyber-emergency, which presumably would stall the operation of this country’s ISPs. Rather than blocking free-speech, the bill is intended to protect the economic infrastructure from cyberterrorists; still, it has many free-speech advocates worried – especially in light of the recent turn of events in Egypt.

Lehr explained that even in Egypt, “there are likely to be leaky ways to bypass [the shut-off].” People may be using smartphones to communicate with the global Internet, for example. Companies may be accessing private Intranet connections. And providers in Egypt with access to their own international connections could be bypassing the Telecom-Egypt-controlled circuits and supporting international connectivity for their clients.

“These sorts of leakage paths demonstrate that even if government seeks to control access to Internet by retaining an on/off switch, this can be challenging and may be circumvented by the determined few,” Lehr wrote.

As the Internet grows more complicated, it will become ever harder to completely turn off. “The ability to control or shut down the Internet or access to certain types of applications is an ongoing war. New sorts of attacks are constantly emerging and new defenses as well,” Lehr wrote. “As the Internet gets more complex, the range of potential vulnerabilities, as well as the ways to work around those, also get more complex.”

Clark also compared controlling Internet access to warfare. While one country can (to some extent) block another country’s access to their part of the Internet cloud, it is unlikely a country would try to destroy the internal access within another country. “It’s perhaps not impossible, but it would be an act of cyber-war,” he told us.

One way to accomplish this would be to sever the actual cables that carry data on the Internet. After all, the World Wide Web would not be possible without the thousands of miles of undersea fiber optic cables on which the data is able to stream from continent to continent. These bundles of cables rise out of the ocean in only a few dozen locations, and then branch out to connect to millions of computers. For example, if someone were to blow up the station in Miami – which handles some 90 percent of the Internet traffic between North America and Latin America – Internet access on the east coast could be severely hampered until the Miami connection could be repaired or traffic could be rerouted.

But even then, physical damage to one or two ports generally isn’t as final as a total shutdown like the one in Egypt. “The Internet is very richly interconnected,” Clark wrote. “You would have to work real hard to find a small number of places where you could seriously disrupt connectivity. The destruction of the major switching center in south Manhattan on 9/11 ‘healed’ in about 15 minutes as the protocols routed around the outage.” (IF…THAT IS A BIG, IF…YOU HAVE REDUNDANCY 95501 DOES NOT!)

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About RICK MILLER

Hello, my name is Rick Miller, welcome to comprehensive photography. In the name 'comprehensive', means to have a pretty solid grasp about the art of contemporary photography, and how the tools (both hardware and software) are all used together to produce a very precious product to meet your needs. Photography simply means that we are able to capture an image through the use of light and film, or, by using digital chips in very sophisticated cameras. My guess is that you "GOOGLED" something about photography to find us here on this website (don't you love Goggle?). I live in Santa Rosa and Eureka, California, about 40 miles (Eureka is a bit further north) north of the golden gate bridge with my wife Pat and our two boys — Ben, and Jeremy. My daughter, Sarah, is grown and lives in Portland Oregon. I am strictly a digital photographer, although I have purchased thousands of rolls of Fugi ASA 400 (now called ISO, the digital cameras auto-correction, for light compensation). Our negatives are all digitized and burned onto a DVD. I've been shooting digital for over five years, with my previous 28 working for AT&T (in digital transport via fiber, DS1, and DS3) — during which time I was a manager in charge of 911, and all "First Responder" communications, for 5 years. I shoot mostly with Canon products — my two camera bodies, and all my lenses are Canon. I edit in a variety of software. Adobe Lightroom and I use Apple's "Aperture" (I'm a Mac person), "Light Room" and "Adobe CS4 Extended". These are tough economic times, anyone out of work and financial issues knows what I mean. I also know how important it is to document special times in our personal lives, without costing a lot. I love working with you, and creating a quality product that will best capture those special moments in time forever. So don't let these tough times stop you from documenting YOUR special times, let's get together and make memories. Have you ever been feeling a little low and maybe started thinking of someone special, and then gone to a photo album or watched a slide show and re-filled your heart with joy? It is truly worth it. This website is growing very fast, it is meant for business but it is also meant for fun (Thank You Rod Remelin). Please feel free to shoot me an E-Mail, and tell me what you like, hate or feel indifferent about. Thank You for being here Sincerely Rick Miller

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