Sat, May 04, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Is Russia’s great firewall meant to keep information in — or out?

Vladimir Putin is expected to soon sign the ‘sovereign Internet’ bill to allow greater monitoring of traffic, but what are its other consequences?

By Andrew Roth  /  The Observer, MOSCOW

Illustration: Lance Liu

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.

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.

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