How Egypt Switched Off the Internet

60 Comments

Amid spreading protests, the Egyptian government has taken the incredible step of shutting down all communications late Thursday. Only a handful of web connections, including those to the nation’s stock exchange, remain up and running.

It’s an astonishing move, and one that seems almost unimaginable for a nation that not only has a relatively strong Internet economy but also relies on its connections to the rest of the world.

But how did the government actually do it? Is there a big kill switch inside Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s office? Do physical cables have to be destroyed? Can a lockdown like this work?

Plenty of nations place limitations on communications, sometimes very severe ones. But there are only a few examples of regimes shutting down communications entirely — Burma’s military leaders notably cut connectivity during the protests of 2007, and Nepal did a similar thing after the king took control of the government in 2005 as part of his battle against insurgents. Local Chinese authorities have also conducted similar, short-lived blockades.

The OpenNet Initiative has outlined two methods by which most nations could enact such shutdowns. Essentially, officials can either close down the routers which direct traffic over the border — hermetically sealing the country from outsiders — or go further down the chain and switch off routers at individual ISPs to prevent access for most users inside.

In its report on the Burmese crackdown, ONI suggests the junta used the second option, something made easier because it owns the only two Internet service providers in the country.

The Burmese Autonomous System (AS), which, like any other AS, is composed of several hierarchies of routers and provides the Internet infrastructure in-country. A switch off could therefore be conducted at the top by shutting off the border router(s), or a bottom up approach could be followed by first shutting down routers located a few hops deeper inside the AS.

A high-level traffic analysis of the logs of NTP (Network Time Protocol) servers indicates that the border routers corresponding to the two ISPs were not turned off suddenly. Rather, our analysis indicates that this was a gradual process.

While things aren’t clear yet, this doesn’t look like the pattern seen in Egypt, where the first indications of Internet censorship came earlier this week with the blockades against Twitter and Facebook, but when access disappeared, it disappeared fast, with 90 percent of connections dropping in an instant.

Analysis by Renesys, an Internet monitoring body, indicates the shutdown across the nation’s major Internet service providers was at precisely the same time, 12:34 a.m. EET (22:34 UTC):

Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet’s global routing table … The Egyptian government’s actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map.

Instead, the signs are that the Egyptian authorities have taken a very careful and well-planned method to screen off Internet addresses at every level, from users inside the country trying to get out and from the rest of the world trying to get in.

“It looks like they’re taking action at two levels,” Rik Ferguson of Trend Micro told me. “First at the DNS level, so any attempt to resolve any address in .eg will fail — but also, in case you’re trying to get directly to an address, they are also using the Border Gateway Protocol, the system through which ISPs advertise their Internet protocol addresses to the network. Many ISPs have basically stopped advertising any internet addresses at all.”

Essentially, we’re talking about a system that no longer knows where anything is. Outsiders can’t find Egyptian websites, and insiders can’t find anything at all. It’s as if the postal system suddenly erased every address inside America — and forgot that it was even called America in the first place.

A complete border shutdown might have been easier, but Egypt has made sure that there should be no downstream impact, no loss of traffic in countries further down the cables. That will ease the diplomatic and economic pressure from other nations, and make it harder for protesters inside the country to get information in and out.

Ferguson suggests that, if nothing else, the methods used by the Egyptian government prove how fragile digital communication really is.

“What struck me most is that we’ve been extolling the virtues of the Internet for democracy and free speech, but an incident like this demonstrates how easy it is — particularly in a country where there’s a high level of governmental control — to just switch this access off.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user Muhammed Ghafari

Related GigaOM Pro Content(subscription required):

60 Comments

AJ

It does beg to question if our government needs this same capability or not, which is what they’ve been pushing for. Fact check spins it by saying it’s technically not to shut everything down but to allow the government to shut off sections, like certain people and neighborhoods. Also, Obama wants to go the extra mile and establish a traceable Internet ID for everyone to more easily trace who’s Internet account posters and others are using. It’ll be utopia supposedly, you won’t even need other passwords since your government approved security will be all you need. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501465_162-20027837-501465.html

Unfortunately, like most things lately, details are vague until it’s ready to rush though, so all we can do is discuss and debate the supposedes until then. The only details are things like it’s supposed to prevent us from having to remember passwords and it will be done through collaborative corporations with government guidance so it seems led by the private sector and not the government. http://www.businessinsider.com/obamas-internet-id-2011-1

Iman

What is funny is that the government did that after all the protesters had arranged everything, and only need to say good night!..then the government kept it closed even after everything is arranged and going on!..i think there should be another reason for closing the internet

nied

In Egypt there are riots, civil war in the capitals and the Western countries find a common position. Some, like UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon calling for free elections immediately, while Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Mubarak strengthens the back. Maybe that’s a good thing, because ultimately must decide the Egyptian people, how to proceed there. In my eyes this Mohamed ElBaradei only one who now wants to jump on the moving train to dust at times quickly president. He is in my eyes is not democratic legitimacy.

Kerim

As a neutral observer on the planet Earth, I found out that peoples, in all nations and countries, are allowed to live ‘free’ as long their majority can be made to believe what their ‘top’ regional media tells them or, in the least, can be guided on how to keep pretending to believe. Otherwise, ‘new measures’ would be taken to restore the lost ‘freedom’ of the people back. So if all people on Earth know this truth, there would be no need for ‘revolutions’ as it is the case in America and Europe lately, for example. This was and still is the natural fate of the ordinary people’s since the birth of humanity and can’t be changed (like Physics laws).

For instance, this truth applies to the masses and not to individuals who (though very rare) might find the real peace and freedom in their inner by living the unconditinal love towards all others.

Ricardo Santos

Yo do realize, however, that just because you try to live at peace doesn’t mean that others will try to take advantage of you or remove you if you are perceived as a threat.

For example, the Tibet was a peaceful country, but China did invaded it in 1953, using less than peaceful means. This resulted on the leader of the country “The Dalai Lama” to free or otherwise be death.

And there is a constitution on the USA, but that did not stop the government to put American born citizens, but from Japanese parents into concentration camps without trial during WW2. Imagine your rights being eliminated just because your parents where Japanese.

There is actually a law that is being passed that will allow the USA government to create a black list of ip. And you can be included without need of a court order, nor any liability on the ISP. Of course they will tell you is for piracy and for pornography. But in reality it can be used to block whatever they want without legal consequence. Making the “freedom of speech” that the constitution protects, a “selective freedom of speech”.

See: http://demandprogress.org/blacklist/coica

The price of freedom is the eternal vigilance, is better to be safe than sorry.

Comments are closed.