31 October, 2016
“We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain,” claims Stephen Hawking, which is a good description of how the Internet is present now and how closely it is related to our daily life. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine how any business can operate nowadays without the use of the Internet. The development of the Internet has affected the way we communicate and made it simpler; the way information and content (images, videos, etc.) are circulated has made our lives easier. Which brings us to the big question: if the Internet stops suddenly, either by accident or by political decision, what will be the consequences? And is there any alternative solution that could eventually replace it?
Earlier in October, Obama effectively declared “cyberwar” on Russia, promising “retaliatory hacks” and suggesting the U.S. would covertly release “embarrassing” information about Putin as tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to escalate. However, many media and analysts, including Wikileaks, believe this may involve the unleashing of a darker operation called “Internet Kill Switch,” a protocol to shut down cellphone and Internet service during “emergencies” or “national security threats”. In some countries, this might include blocking Internet access because of national security, elections, protests, school exams, etc. claiming that they want to stop the spread of misinformation, keep citizens safe, restore order, stop cheating on exams, or keep dignitaries safe. According to Access Now, “these excuses often have the opposite effect by making people feel less secure because they can’t find out what’s going on and suppressing freedom of expression.”
The Internet was originally designed as a distributed network precisely to survive such an attack. In Egypt as in Algeria, the government was able to turn off the Internet by forcing its relatively few Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to shut down their servers. In Libya, the servers are answering and the route is open but the traffic is being throttled down to zero. Accordingly, if the U.S. government forced the major ISPs to shut down their service, this technically would a partial Kill Switch; it would cause a shutdown of some parts of the Internet. The consequences would be a total disaster. In the event of cyberwar, an Internet shutdown would cause more problems than it would prevent, according to a report commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). We can elaborate consequences on three major levels: on an economic and financial level, an Internet shutdown would cost the economy $2.4 billion worldwide, according to the Brookings Institution. We can take as example Ethiopia, where Internet shutdowns cost the economy $9 million last year, according to CyberEthiopia
In Algeria, the impact of Internet outages due to the cut of the submarine cable in 2015, or by shutting down ISP servers, cost no less than 100 million DZD ($900,000) per day. On a human resource level, this shutdown will cause everyday operations to take more time and make information searches and communications more difficult, taking us back to the dark ages. And finally, on a political level, it will simply launch a new World War where the quest is the control of the Internet.
What are the alternatives to such a disaster?
It’s really hard to replace the actual Internet; however, there are two experimental new Internet alternatives that merit further study. The first one is held by Russia, where Russian military forces have completed the creation of a “Closed Data Transfer Segment” electronic communication system that is “completely independent from the Internet and protected from unlicensed connections, allowing for fast and safe transfer of classified information.” The Closed Data Transfer Segment is completed and fully operational, but we don’t have a clear idea of its structure. Most likely, it is a mix of centralized and decentralized models; decentralized if we consider point-to-point connections between military units, and centralized if we consider the connection between end points and these units. Considering a complete shutdown of the actual Internet, this model can quickly move to citizens and commercial use (reminding us in some ways of the beginning of the actual World Wide Web).
The second example, and quite surprisingly experimented in a MENA region state (Sayada, Tunisia), is the Mesh Network. Unlike the actual Internet, which based on centralized access points and ISPs, mesh networks are an open, decentralized model for building community and governance based on open source tools. In fact, the mesh network is an ad hoc network infrastructure in which computers and devices are directly connected to each other without passing through any central authority or centralized organization. They can automatically reconfigure themselves according to the availability and proximity of bandwidth, storage, and so on; this is what makes them resistant to disaster and other interference. Dynamic connections between nodes enable packets to use multiple routes to travel through the network, which makes these networks more robust.
Compared to more centralized network architectures, the only way to shut down a mesh network is to shut down every single node in the network. Mesh networks not only represent a cheap and efficient means for people to connect and communicate with a broader community, but also a way to preserve the confidentiality of online communications. In fact, with the absence a regulator, it’s extremely difficult to know the real identity of users connected to these networks and the only way to monitor mesh traffic is to be locally and directly connected to them.
In conclusion, ever since the Internet has come to be a part of our lives, it has become an absolute necessity. Governments attempting to control the content, information, and communications circulating within it is not a new trend, but with the emergence of hacking and mass attacks over the web, we can say that we are may be on the edge of a cyberwar. However, hope remains with the existence of promising alternatives such as mesh networks, which I encourage stakeholders to consider and implement further in other parts of the MENA region.
References and further readings
Written by Mr. Houssem Kaabi, NetworkTelecoms Engineer & Digital Security trainer
Edited by Mr. Hamza Ben Mehrez, Policy Analyst lead (iGmena)