On 17th January, New America published a blog post on the rising number of Internet blackouts since 2018, citing various examples for the same and hinting at political reasons behind it. The post also predicts the same trend to continue in 2019 owing to two factors- countries deliberately “turning off” the internet within their borders, and hackers attempting a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack ultimately leading to internet disruptions.
Amongst the various reasons listed for abruptly cutting off a country’s internet connection were- to avoid the “chaos” that might result from presidential election results in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an attempted coup in Gabon, under the sea internet cables being mysteriously cut off in Mauritania and much more. The post also lists a history of internet blackouts, right from 2004, that were caused by the governments of various countries to possibly manipulate people and stop protests against their Presidents.
All of this “internet manipulation” makes us wonder how safe would one feel in a country whose government controls a centralized internet. This also makes us ponder on the power that governments- with relatively centralized internets- have, who can literally disconnect their domestic internet networks to cut off from the rest of the globe during domestic unrest or other government-related heists. The post also points out the fact that the government controlling components of the internet- like its hardware- to disrupt the working of the same, is a sign of “censorship” and “social control”.
As for the DDOS attacks against the rising IoT devices, the post highlighted how IoT devices of today largely lack in their security features and can be easily hacked into. Hackers can easily take advantage of these security loopholes and block segments of the internet, directing traffic to a single site/service until it’s overwhelmed and can no longer function. The American internet was taken down in 2016 by the Mirai botnet that worked on similar lines, being the largest DDOS attack known till date and taking down major sites like Twitter, Spotify, SoundCloud, etc.
New America has also indicated that these DDOS attacks are now being associated with government controlled internet blackouts. Jason Healey and Robert Knake wrote in a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, DDoS attacks via hijacked IoT devices can “cause serious harm by allowing foreign governments to stifle free speech abroad and enabling them to shut down countries’ domestic networks or even the internet globally.” A report from the Council to Secure the Digital Economy states that, these incidents undermine “fundamental confidence and trust in the digital economy” that depends on reliable availability and performance of internet services.
If these are the problems associated with a centralized form of the internet, why don’t countries switch over to a more decentralized version then? The post states that the internet has become centralized in countries where the government has dictated the buildout of infrastructure and also where there’s little market competition for internet services.
Policymakers should thereby pay minute attention while creating cyber norms taking into consideration the current scenario of internet manipulation. The technical standards for IoT devices need to tighten considering the extent of harm they can cause by being manipulated by malicious actors. The post states that, currently, there exist “virtually no consensus rules” for “minimum security” on these devices, and that many industry organizations and government agencies are possibly using IoT systems that have terrible security. Outcomes of this could be vulnerability to connected infrastructure systems, open wearable-IoT-wearing government personnel to real-time GPS tracking, devices that can be easily hijacked in service of DDoS attacks and much more.
Here are some interesting statistics from acessnow that list the number of outages through the years and popular reasons for the same.
A recent internet shutdown has been in Zimbabwe, where access to the internet and popular social media apps like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp has been blocked unless a VPN is used. The country’s largest telecom company, Econet, has been sending customers text messages carrying the government’s orders and calling the situation “beyond our reasonable control”. A “total internet shutdown” was declared for most of Friday- last week. The Sydney Morning herald stated that critics called this “an attempt to hide growing reports of a violent crackdown on protests against a dramatic fuel price increase”.
Twitter has seen some interesting sentiments on the topic, where people are speculating the necessity of turning off the internet during domestic turmoil.
— Rebecca Enonchong (@africatechie) January 20, 2019
The #Internetshutdown in #Zimbabwe only further aggravates the economic crisis the country faces, and its impact is likely to persist far beyond the days in which access is disrupted! We join the call to #KeepItOn -> https://t.co/ttuXrSTVfG #InternetFreedomAfrica#ForTheWeb pic.twitter.com/Lau5CeuRkw
— CIPESA (@cipesaug) January 16, 2019
It is sad to see how this is affecting normal citizens who depend on e-cash to fund various needs
#Zimbabwe Internet blackout
No cash so people can't buy anything as dependent on ecocash, limited food and medical supplies #KeepItOn
Some have returned to work
Some are still on #ShutdownZimbabwe
Soldiers still patrolling
— Regina (@tapsy_j) January 18, 2019
Head over to New America for more insights on why you can expect 2019 to be a year filled with many more instances of politically motivated internet shutdowns like the one faced by Zimbabwe.