My first car had what is called a kill switch that I put in shortly after I had bought it. I was living in LA at the time, the capital of car thefts, and I even though it wasn’t all that fancy a vehicle I wanted to make sure that it was somewhat protected. It was a simple thing: you had to turn the headlights on before you started the car. I thought I was in good shape until I found out how many valets could figure out the sequence (in LA you have to leave your car with valets a lot). This is a good analogy for the same process when it comes time to turn off Internet access to an entire country, whether it is for cybersecurity or censorship. Someone clever will always figure out a way around the blockade.
The idea to protect our own Internet access has been around for some time, and various people have proposed that we do something about it, including Senator Joe Lieberman.
The senator got his wish for a simple on/off switch for the Internet, but it didn’t go down quite as he had planned when he first proposed the idea before Congress last year. Early last Friday just after midnight local time, the Egyptian telecoms authority turned off almost all Internet and cell phone access to its 80 million residents. What is astounding is how easy and effective this action seemed to be. While no one directly involved is actually talking, savvy folks have figured out it was a series of phone calls to the network operations staffs of the service providers involved. Egypt is served by only a few Internet providers and cell carriers. Within a few minutes, the entire country went offline. SInce then, some cell service has been restored.
What makes this noteworthy is that there are dozens of countries that try to control their net access with a series of firewalls and content filters, most notably Iran and China. These countries allow most Internet traffic through. Egypt has been wide open over the past in terms of what packets flowed through its pipes. Indeed, just as its location is critical for shipping traffic on the Suez canal, major international fiber routes pass through the country. These long-haul connections are still operating.
But there is very little traffic coming in or out of the country, according to Renasys, which tracks this kind of thing and the source of the graphic above. So the first step towards total control ironically is to first set yourself up as a free society, to prevent anyone from even thinking that you can just flip the switch. The more you tend to block, the more motivated others are to figure out ways around it, as my own experience with my first car illustrates.
There are some countries that use more than just an off switch for their blockades: they rate-limit the traffic, slowing down access to make it all but useless for people looking for forbidden content or IP addresses. This is a time-tested technique by many IT directors who don’t want their user populations surfing Facebook or streaming videos during the workday. They don’t turn access off completely; just slow it down enough that most users will move on to another destination. Earlier last week, Egyptian authorities blocked Twitter and Facebook access. When that wasn’t working, they went with the nuclear option and turned everything off.
Finally, what also helped Egypt’s ability to turn off its Internet is it has a few providers to give everyone the sense of competition. This ironically made it less of an issue for people to seek out alternatives that are outside of domestic control. In places that have fewer providers, people are more afraid of potential censorship and find proxies and other routes around the domestic network.
I hope this column becomes quickly obsolete and access is turned on in Egypt. But in the meantime, they have provided a roadmap that others should take heed.