Dictators Shutting Down the Internet

Excellent article: "How to Shut Down Internets."

First, he describes what just happened in Syria. Then:

Egypt turned off the internet by using the Border Gateway Protocol trick, and also by switching off DNS. This has a similar effect to throwing bleach over a map. The location of every street and house in the country is blotted out. All the Egyptian ISPs were, and probably still are, government licensees. It took nothing but a short series of phone calls to effect the shutdown.

There are two reasons why these shutdowns happen in this manner. The first is that these governments wish to black out activities like, say, indiscriminate slaughter. That much is obvious. The second is sometimes not so obvious. These governments intend to turn the internet back on. Deep down, they believe they will be in their seats the next month and have the power to turn it back on. They believe they will win. It is the arrogance of power: they take their future for granted, and need only hide from the world the corpses it will be built on.

Cory Doctorow asks: "Why would a basket-case dictator even allow his citizenry to access the Internet in the first place?" and "Why not shut down the Internet the instant trouble breaks out?" The reason is that the Internet is a valuable tool for social control. Dictators can use the Internet for surveillance and propaganda as well as censorship, and they only resort to extreme censorship when the value of that outweighs the value of doing all three in some sort of totalitarian balance.

Related: Two articles on the countries most vulnerable to an Internet shutdown, based on their connectivity architecture.

Posted on December 11, 2012 at 6:08 AM • 28 Comments

Comments

Kew EllDecember 11, 2012 6:27 AM

>> Dictators can use the Internet for surveillance

Not just dictators - what is wholesale surveillance called when undertaken against citizenry in a supposedly democratic society, ie, UK Home Secretary's proposal to allow police and other paramiltaries sweeping, open-ended and unscrutinised powers to monitor British citizens' internet use? The proposal has survived 6 changes of Home Secretary and 3 changes of ruling governments, so clearly originates outside the political process.

Jon HannaDecember 11, 2012 8:42 AM

There's another reason, which is the main reason that the Internet exists - being much more often used for trade, education and entertainment than it is for coördinating uprisings. It may be easier to be a dictator of a country where trade isn't possible, or micro-managed by the government, but it's less profitable.

WinterDecember 11, 2012 8:44 AM

Other reasons not to shut down the internet or (mobile) phones:

1) Economic damage from shutting down communication can be severe

2) It shows the government is unable to supply basic necessities

Mike BDecember 11, 2012 8:48 AM

There was some interesting analysis that went out during Round 1 of the Arab Spring that showed that the street protests didn't pass the tipping point until the internet was shut down. What happened was that in trying to silence a vocal minority it took away the primary "distraction" of the disengaged majority and with nothing better to do they hit the streets themselves.

The other reason these regimes bother to allow internet connectivity in the first place is because it is almost entirely necessary for a modern economy. Unless you want your country to look like North Korea you need to have internet access. In fact most dictators only retain power as long as they can keep delivering some basic level of prosperity. North Korea is the outlier due to its high level of general brainwashing.

paulDecember 11, 2012 9:30 AM

What shutdowns also show is that deep packet inspection doesn't work well enough yet. Otherwise it would be fairly straightforward to cut off communication among the rabble and messages to the outside telling how bad things were getting, without losing the pacific effects of continued access to lolcats.

Robert ThilleDecember 11, 2012 10:42 AM

It seems to me that even in suburbia (where I live), there is plenty of overlap of all the wi-fi units to function fairly well as a mesh network, were they so designed/configured. I wonder if OpenWRT or any of the other open-wi-fi software systems would take up that challenge...

haxxDecember 11, 2012 12:06 PM

Our so called democratic overseers are trying to shove through laws to do the exact same thing. Canada, EU. UK/Au and US all have politicians warning of doom and claiming they need some sort of internet kill switch to prevent cyberpocalypse or some other excuse

m00December 11, 2012 12:42 PM

Mesh networks don't work for avoiding censorship. If you built your own community net should your dictator shut down the tubes they will simply trace wifi signals and arrest whoever is broadcasting or in Syria's case mortar them with abandon.

Clive RobinsonDecember 11, 2012 2:11 PM

@ Paul,

What shutdowns also show is that deep packet inspection doesn't work well enough yet

It's not just deep packet inspection that is not working well.

What has effectivly gone by without many people noticing is the ITU WCIT-12 meeting in Dubai. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is a UN pody tasked with harmanising the use of telephones radio and their basic modes of operation to ensure interoperability. It is an organisation that is run by the UN for the 196 member countries, there are no trade bodies or manufactures organisations etc alowed votes or infact entry to the meetings (ir their are held in secretive "behind closed doors" sesions over the two week.

China and Russia as well as several other nations on the "dodgy list" have put forward proposals that would see governments taking considerable control of the Internet under the shadow of the ITU.

The US government are mainly opposed to these proposals for what on the face of it are perfectly good reason.

However some proposals are not realy seeing the light of day, one of which is to make the Iinternet more traceable. In essence one of the proposals would turn the Internet from the equivalent of a packet switched network with in band control signaling to a circuit switched network with out of band control signaling. Apparently to stop anonymous attacks across the Internet...

However he baby would go out with the bath water as far as onlinr privacy is concerned if this proposal were excepted.

Anon IndianDecember 11, 2012 2:40 PM

>>> Dictators can use the Internet for surveillance and propaganda as well as censorship ...

Why only dictators ?? Are you sure that the US government (or UK, Germany, Australia, etc) does not use Internet for such purposes as well ??

Petréa MitchellDecember 11, 2012 3:25 PM

Another reason for not shutting down the Internet is it provides entertainment and distractions. If you're at the point where most of your subjects are only kind of annoyed with you, it may be better to not force them to find something else to do with their spare time.

Petréa MitchellDecember 11, 2012 3:25 PM

Oops, should've read the other comments more closely first, Mike B already had that one covered.

indeedDecember 11, 2012 3:45 PM

Syria since day #1 of the revolt loosened restrictions on organizing social media sites so they could gather easy intel. Most activists spotted the fake cert warning but some didn't and ended up disappearing.

This is why I'm skeptical of the latest outage. I think Iran or somebody else sold them advanced packet inspection spyware and root certs and while they were constructing a choke point it all went down due to regime incompetence. I fully expect their internet to go up soon with the chokepoint in place and better cert spoofing.

jammitDecember 11, 2012 5:02 PM

Computer n00b here. I know computers have a "hosts" file, and it's used to redirect a users URL requests. What I want to know is if there's a way for another program to log the IP address with the URL and save the info in the hosts file? If you fail to get a valid DNS or you decide to override it, you can fall back to the hosts file of the sites you frequently visit.

just an insignificant mouseDecember 11, 2012 5:31 PM

Bruce, et al,

Everyone needs to understand censorship goes through phases, discussed by Jacob Appelbaum (creator of TOR, lots of good video presentations on youtube):

Phase 1
Surveillance - governments start watching what people are doing and saying (already happening in the modern countries, USA, UK, Australia)

Phase 2
Outright censorship - governments begin to censor unpleasant information, ideas, and media (one could make a successful argument that is happening already in the west - UK, US, Australia)

Phase 3
Censorship and Police Action - In combination with censorship and surveillance, the stick of police imprisonment, beating people up, picking them up and having them murdered. (This isn't happening yet, but you could make a fair argument it's starting -

Phase 4
Internet shutdown - pretty self explanatory.


So my point is, Bruce, I think you, the authors of this report and many others live in a world of cognitive dissonance, that we're in a "better place" the "land of freedom". HA! It can't happen here...? It already is happening here, and it will continue to get worse unless people stand in front of a Tienanmen square tank real quick, while we still have an Internet.

ShadeyoneDecember 11, 2012 7:36 PM

@mouse

I don't think we're living in a world of cognitive dissonance, I'd say we're pretty aware of what's going on, especially from many of the comments and insights I've seen from numerous commentors on this site.

I disagree with you on the outright censorship, but I feel like that one could be argued by anyone depending on their personal view on the matter.

I disagree with your third phase beginning to happen, because anytime any even remotely like that occurs, Twitter, Facebook and the like light up like a giant christmas tree with news about what happened.

Due to the fact that everyone is so much more easily connected than before, we've been able to have movements to protest SOPA and other bills by governments around the world. Previously, I don't think this level of shared knowledge would have happened and it definitely wouldn't have gotten out to the man on the street.

In my personal opinion, it is because of the freedoms we enjoy and combined with the nature of the internet that we can recognize and stop any further encroachment of rights and privileges. I'm aware this is a bit of a possibly naive and hopeful view, but I would like to think that with everything that's happened these last few years, more people are aware of what is happening and aren't content to wait until things are obviously bad before doing something about it.

just an insignificant mouseDecember 11, 2012 7:58 PM

@Shadeone

You are correct, and many people do recognize what is going on, thanks to EFF and other freedom / liberty minded organizations. However, Bruce, from reading his book and monitoring the tone of many in the security community think we can regulate our way to safety.

It's far beyond that at this point. Expecting the same organizations that are abusing us to "get right" and help us, is awfully over optimistic. Things are pretty bad, no, really bad, they just aren't visible yet. That will come in the next year or two. buckle up!

Old Bull LeeDecember 12, 2012 11:50 AM

"However, Bruce, from reading his book and monitoring the tone of many in the security community think we can regulate our way to safety.

It's far beyond that at this point. Expecting the same organizations that are abusing us to 'get right' and help us, is awfully over optimistic."

I wish there was some way to get this point across to all the net neutrality advocates.

B. JohnsonDecember 13, 2012 10:24 AM

@Robert Thille: Combine that with the fact that hams can (i.e. they already figured out the technical bit) push a wifi signal on 1,500 watts for the low channels, and you'd be able to put together an ad-hoc internet fairly quikly.

FigureitoutDecember 13, 2012 1:04 PM

@B. Johnson
--Yes indeed. :) I believe the network was extended up to 2 miles, maybe less; it was coincidentally for a "field day", where you practice setting up makeshift comms. It's a lot easier than my other idea where I'd be running like a wild animal w/ a spool of wire.

Nahum GDecember 17, 2012 7:49 PM

> Cory Doctorow asks: "Why would a basket-case dictator even allow his
> citizenry to access the Internet in the first place?" and "Why not
> shut down the Internet the instant trouble breaks out?" The reason is
> that the Internet is a valuable tool for social control. Dictators
> can use the Internet for surveillance and propaganda as well as
> censorship, and they only resort to extreme censorship when the value
> of that outweighs the value of doing all three in some sort of totalitarian balance.
>
>
> http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/how-to-shut-down-internets-warren-ellis
>
> Cory Doctorow:
> http://boingboing.net/2012/12/09/why-dictators-dont-shut-do.html
Bruce, I wrote you first a big commentary on this statement but had to delete it; it was too angry and I'm sure you would not hear it anyways whatever my arguments are. Still, Cory Doctorow never experienced life under dictatorship; it is so easy to speculate about something you don't understand and only see thru the rose glasses of being a Western liberal fellow traveler.

Gentle dictators that I remember and who were much worse than the Assad's family would not give a damn about valuable tools for social control - in fact they would not even understand the concept beyond using the prison and shock therapy; that's exactly what makes them brutal dictators who killed millions. But even brutal dictators have kids who like Western staff to play with and they are the most effective force to convince their parents to occasionally introduce openings of the fashionable toys that allow them to play with their elite friends. Note that Stalin's, Khrushchev's, Brezhnev's, Mikoyan's etc., etc. kids were all on the other side of the fence and often caused profound changes unwittingly (or sometimes caused very bad reaction of their parents to any change - there was some risk involved in it of course).

My point is that many of such reasons are subjective, not deterministically objective as many a Cory Doctorow would like you to believe.

Regards

Nahum G

P.S. There is a great Russian Jewish poet in Israel, Igor Guberman, who wrote famous verses on this subject that explain meaning of life and the dilemmas of such brutal dictators far better than any of your quasi-scientific sources ever will. His numerous 4-verse poetry is on the philosophic and poetic level of the Torah's proverbs, although he is a very simple man and a drank. Of course for that he spent years in a concentration camp in Siberia -- unlike your friend Cory Doctorow and many other Jewish kids of the 1960's, who got their global outlook by teaching the natives in Africa and Latin America how to change their life based on their own experience growing on the Toronto asphalt and destroying local agricultural societies in the process.

Bruce, learn Russian and read Guberman; you might even learn something useful about Internet and security in the process, even though Guberman never mentions either.

All the best.

ng

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.