Earlier this year, US officials briefed reporters on an extraordinary operation: They claimed to have launched an offensive cyberattack against Russia to protect the integrity of the US’ midterm elections.
Government hackers from US Cyber Command had pre-emptively cut off the Internet to a Saint Petersburg office building that houses the Internet Research Agency, commonly known as Russia’s troll factory, to prevent the spread of misinformation on election day in November last year, US newspapers reported.
News of the attack, which was never confirmed by Russian officials, did not cause much surprise in Moscow.
Illustration: Lance Liu
For years, global connectivity has been portrayed as a dangerous vulnerability in the escalating conflict between Russia and the West.
Days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned that Russia could potentially be cut off from the global Internet entirely.
The West might hesitate to attack, only because it could disrupt their spying operations, he said.
“[Western intelligence agencies] are sitting online. [The Internet] is their creation. And they hear, see and read everything that you are saying and they’re collecting security information,” Putin said in a televised interview. “But everything is possible in theory. So we must create a segment [of the Internet] which depends on nobody.”
Russian lawmakers last month followed up on Putin’s recommendations, passing a bill codifying the country’s most ambitious attempt yet to wrangle control over Russia’s segment of the Internet and its connection to the rest of the world.
The “sovereign Internet” bill, which was proposed by lawmakers close to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) intelligence agency, would require telecom operators to closely monitor all Internet traffic using filtering technology and also create the framework for an “on/off” switch that could allow Russia to cut itself off from the global Internet in case of attack.
The bill, which is probably to be signed into law by Putin soon, is seen as a step toward a Chinese-style firewall for Russia, where the Internet has largely remained open since the 1990s.
“It ought not to be possible,” policy institute Chatham House associate fellow Keir Giles said, adding that Russia’s security services had lobbied to reform the Internet segment for years.
“However, Russia has been preparing for this moment so intensely and for so long that if anyone is capable of undertaking the tech measures required, it should be them,” Giles added.
The Russian government has seen the power of hacking operations firsthand. In 2008, Russian hackers launched a cyberattack against Estonia that brought it to a standstill, while cyberoperations were an important element of the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Since 2016, when Russian military hackers were accused of breaking into the servers of the US Democratic National Committee and releasing damaging information about former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US has known it is a target.
“The US has now said that it wants to impose consequences on people who attack it in cyberspace and the Russians know that means them to a good extent,” Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies researcher James Lewis said.
However, critics remain skeptical about whether the overhaul is even possible.
While China’s Internet developed with an eye to controlling outside content, by investing fortunes in filtering technology and limiting entry points into the country, Russia’s has grown with entry points designed to promote the efficient flow of information and integration with the West.
The cost of implementation has been estimated at more than US$300 million, a number that will probably rise, analysts have said.
A test of the system has been delayed as lawmakers recognize the potential disruption it could cause, amid protests from the tech industry.
Critics have said that the government has set itself an impossible task that would allow it to peer further into the lives of its citizens without increasing security.
Lawmakers were “trying to issue new laws of nature,” said Alexander Isavnin of non-governmental organization RosKomSvoboda, which advocates for Internet freedom.
He helped organize a protest in Moscow last month against the bill that attracted more than 15,000 demonstrators.
“Most of our regulation of Internet, content blocking [and] data filtering is a way for the government to get more power and information,” he said. “But if they could not even block [messenger app] Telegram, how are they going to make a sovereign Internet?”
Nearly half of Russia’s Internet traffic travels through an exchange point in Moscow called MSK-IX.
In their book The Red Web, journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borgan describe the 19-story building as the “heart of the Russian Internet.”
Google rents a room on one floor, while an FSB listening post is on another.
In order to cut itself off from the global Internet, Russia would first have to divert all of its traffic through nationally controlled exchange points such as MSK-IX, where information can be analyzed, content filtered and, in case of a crisis, the flow of information from abroad stopped.
Then, Russia would need to implement a nationally controlled proxy version of the domain name system (DNS) that translates uniform resource locators (URLs), or Web addresses, into Internet protocol (IP) addresses and directs user traffic to the servers that Web sites are run on.
DNS acts like a telephone directory for the Internet, and if Russia can implement its own version, a costly fix, then it could control what servers are accessible from within Russia.
“For example, the URL for a foreign Web site, eg the Guardian, or app, eg Facebook, which the government doesn’t want allowed into the country could be directed to a dead-end IP address to thwart casual users or to nationally sanctioned, local social media Web sites. This is commonly used as part of the Chinese ‘great firewall’ today,” said Alex Henthorn-Iwane of ThousandEyes, a network monitoring company based in San Francisco.
Ideally, a Russian user would not notice much change if the government blocked traffic in and out of the country. Russian Web sites would continue to work and, the government hopes, users would not have much demand for the sites and services that become inaccessible.
However, the process is daunting. It might be straightforward to redirect Web traffic from a browser, but international finance and commerce increasingly rely on automated processes that generate cross-border traffic.
The products people use in daily life increasingly require Internet connectivity, meaning that the Russian system would have to take into account smartphones, vehicles and other consumer products when designing the system.
Unlike China, “Russia is densely integrated into the global Internet and digital ecosystem,” Henthorn-Iwane said.
“A broad set of critical components of the Russian economy, from financial services to enterprise software-as-a-service applications all depend heavily on interconnections to services outside Russia. A full cutoff that suddenly isolates Russia from the Internet would almost certainly disrupt all of these services causing a nontrivial economic impact,” he said.
Russia, like other countries, is looking for a way to enjoy the economic benefits of the Internet while avoiding the dangers of increased connectivity between people.
“Countries want to be open for business, but closed for politics,” Lewis said.
Long before the appearance of the bill, Russia had been seeking ways to limit the spread of information deemed dangerous, building databases of banned Web sites and occasionally pressing charges against Internet users for what they post and like online.
Internet messenger app Telegram was last year blocked by the Russian government, but the service had largely overcome the ban by moving between IP addresses, embarrassing the Internet regulator, the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media.
However, the government has shown that it is ready to take drastic action when necessary. During a series of protests in October last year in the North Caucasus region of Ingushetia, a young demonstrator named Khasan noticed something unusual: He could not post photographs to Instagram or write about the protests on Facebook.
In fact, he realized that he could not access the Internet at all from his telephone and neither could his friends or relatives.
The protesters quickly guessed what had happened. Telecom operators, at the request of the Russian government, had cut off the Internet to a Russian region in an effort to stifle the protests.
The government had hoped to suck the oxygen out of the protests by preventing viral images or firsthand accounts of the protests from going public.
TV broadcasters ignored the unrest.
“This was the most important day in years and suddenly the Internet just stopped working,” said Khasan, who asked that his last name not be published. “I knew immediately that this wasn’t an accident and why they did it. I just did not realize they could take it away so easily.”
As Russia increasingly flexes its muscle abroad, it has targeted utilities in neighboring Ukraine and has also raised concerns that it could attack critical infrastructure for the global Internet.
NATO military officials in 2017 said that Russia had stepped up activity around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic and has reportedly developed weapons to be used against satellites.
In the case of an attack, analysts said that Russia would want to be able to quickly wall itself off from the consequences.
“If Russia does wish to reach out beyond its borders and attack critical infrastructure, the extent of the damage, disruption, chaos and economic fallout that would ensue means it would make sense for Russia to try to pre-emptively insulate itself from the consequences,” Giles said.
Russia had planned to test the new system before April 1, but has now moved back plans to implement it until November. In either case, it is unlikely to remain a secret.
“If this is tested on a large scale, I think it’s going to be pretty obvious,” Giles said.
For years, Russia’s security services have clashed with Internet service providers (ISPs) over whether the Internet was regulated too laxly, Giles said.
ISPs have protested against the changes, because they would have to install traffic-monitoring equipment under the law and because it would probably hinder Internet traffic.
However, the conflict comes down to radically different views of the Internet and how, increasingly, it is seen as a dangerous avenue for attack from abroad and for protest to develop at home.
The ISPs pointed out that, “if you try to enforce the kind of security that FSB and others had in mind and not allow the free flow of information, then this would break the Internet,” Giles said.
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