Can Russia Actually 'Unplug' From The Internet?

from the it-won't-be-easy dept

As you may have heard, Russia recently announced a plan to run a "test" by which it would disconnect from the internet:

Russia is considering a plan to temporarily disconnect from the Internet as a way to gauge how the country's cyberdefenses would fare in the face of foreign aggression, according to Russian media.

The general idea behind this is to see what would happen if other countries (such as the US...) decided to try to cut Russia off from the internet:

The bill would require Internet providers to make sure they can operate if foreign countries attempt to isolate the Runet, or Russian Internet. It was introduced after the White House published its 2018 National Security Strategy, which attributed cyberattacks on the United States to Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

As part of the experiment, communications oversight agency Roskomnadzor would examine whether data transmitted between Russia's users can remain in the country without being rerouted to servers abroad, where it could be subjected to interception.

Of course, this shouldn't come as a huge surprise. Over the past few years, Russia has made a bunch of fairly significant moves leading up to this. In 2014, it passed a new law demanding that user data remain on Russian soil, and threatened multiple US companies for failing to do so. Also, almost exactly two years ago, a top Putin adviser hinted at a similar plan to experiment with disconnecting the country from the internet to see how resilient a domestic Russian internet would be.

So the real question is whether or not this would actually work. Wired has a pretty thorough analysis of just how difficult this might prove for Russia:

“What we have seen so far is that it tends to be much harder to turn off the internet, once you built a resilient internet infrastructure, than you’d think,” says Andrew Sullivan, CEO of Internet Society, a nonprofit that promotes the open development of the internet.

[....]

The process by which it would do so remains challenging. “In short, Russia would need to do two things: Ensure that the content Russians seek to access is actually located somewhere in the country, and ensure that routing and exchanges could all occur domestically,” says Nicole Starosielski a professor at New York University and author of The Undersea Network.

[...]

No matter how much Russia has prepared, however, unanticipated issues will almost certainly arise if it tries to dissever from the rest of the world. “I’m absolutely sure that’s the case. It may not break from the perspective of their major infrastructure grinding to a halt, but that’s a risk that they’re taking,” says Paul Barford, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies computer networking. It’s difficult for internet service providers to know precisely how reliant they are on every piece of infrastructure outside their borders. “Because of the complexity across all levels of the protocol stack, there could be catastrophic failures somewhere,” says Barford.

There's a lot more in the Wired piece, but it certainly suggests that Russia might find it more difficult than it expects -- but I guess that's the reason why the country is considering this as a "test," rather than finding out how well it works out of necessity at some later date. To some extent, this sounds like a nation-state level experiment along the lines of Kashmir Hill's recently journalistic experiment in cutting out the various tech giants, which alone proved to be significantly harder than most people would have expected.

There is, of course, a larger point here. The value and importance of the internet is built quite heavily into the fact that it is a borderless, global network that allows information sharing and communication nearly anywhere. There have, obviously, been some limited challenges to that (China being the most notable), but it still remains mostly true. There have been increasing fears of a "fragmenting" internet, and Russia toying with this "test" only drives home how real that fragmentation may become in the very near future.

Filed Under: data localization, disconnect, fragmentation, internet, localization, russia


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Feb 2019 @ 1:59pm

    I with them luck

    This is actually something I'd like to see: I wouldn't want MY country to be the guinea pig, but I'd love to see what breaks and what doesn't, assuming Russia is open with the results of their test.

    It seems to me that the Internet is routes around certain types of damage, but may cause the applications running on top of it to fail hard if other stresses are put on it. The ability to function in isolation and then re-join the greater network will make it more resilient in the long run, even if the intent here is to lock out information.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Feb 2019 @ 2:09pm

    Re: I with them luck

    It's happened more than once: https://bgpmon.net/country-wide-outage-in-azerbaijan/ https://bgpmon.net/syria-shuts-down-the- internet/

    You'll notice that the first link was only a partial shutdown due to external actors in the country. The Syria outage was complete since only 1 ASN serves the country.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 15 Feb 2019 @ 2:09pm

    I’m guessing this unplug won’t apply to government agencies and their hired-out troll farms.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Feb 2019 @ 2:12pm

    I mean, technically this is possible. It's not that dissimilar to unplugging your modem from your router. All LAN applications and routing is going to work just fine. DHCP and DNS will still work, and any fully LAN applications will be fine too. The problem is you won't be able to access any resources in the wider internet.

    What is actually likely to break is going to be more at the application level. Websites that use open source code and plugins from Github or other open platforms will start acting strangely if not fail outright. Applications that make calls to web resources to check the time or other assorted functions will hang or get incorrect information. And that's only a few examples. That's the kind of stuff that is going to be what breaks, and in a network that massive, there is no way to track all that down.

    So while major network infrastructure and resources will remain operational, I think they are going to be extremely surprised by the sheer number of things that break once they pull that plug.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Feb 2019 @ 3:13pm

    People find a way, weather it be short wave or satellite. The Russians should be concerned, half of our body politic blames anything on them, not to mention the mainland Chinese. With the NSA leaving hacks on an unsecured server things can go sideways rather quickly. Most of my machines rarely face the cesspool we call the internet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Whoever, 15 Feb 2019 @ 3:17pm

    Re:

    DNS will still work

    Are any of the root DNS servers located in Russia?

    I assume that the primary servers for the ".ru" domain are in Russia, but there will almost certainly be dependencies on ".net" and ".com", which probably don't have any servers in Russia.

    Java and Javascript applications that dynamically load code will probably break.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    bob, 15 Feb 2019 @ 4:22pm

    The normal trolls haven't commented here yet, maybe they already pulled the plug?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Feb 2019 @ 5:07pm

    Re: Re:

    Are any of the root DNS servers located in Russia?

    Wikipedia shows they've got instances of F and K. Records in this domain (GTLDs, CCTLDs) should be cached already, and don't expire for a long time—a week for com and net, 41 days for fr.

    Similarly, .com and .net are served by 13 lettered servers at gtld-servers.net. It wouldn't be surprising to have one or two in Russia.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Judd Sandage (profile), 15 Feb 2019 @ 9:06pm

    In Mother Russia, Internet Cuts YOU Off!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    any moose cow word, 15 Feb 2019 @ 11:53pm

    I wish they would try a similar test in the US. Not the entire US, just the White House.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Bruce C., 16 Feb 2019 @ 4:54am

    Oh, Wired...

    "dissever" from the rest of the world?

    Making up a new verb doesn't help when the real problem is that the verb doesn't have an object. Try "sever itself"...

    /Pedant

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Bruce C., 16 Feb 2019 @ 4:56am

    Oh, me...

    Apparently "dissever" really is a word.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Pixelation, 16 Feb 2019 @ 5:21pm

    In Soviet Russia, internet unplugs from you!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    MikeOh Shark, 17 Feb 2019 @ 4:53am

    Russia disconnect

    This would be a great time for server operators to implement geoblocking on Russia. Sure, they could use proxies in other countries and VPNs but they might be left wondering why many sites they like to try to compromise, like banks and dot gov are less available.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Feb 2019 @ 11:18am

    Re:

    limit it to just one rather small room would likely suffice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Feb 2019 @ 12:21pm

    Re: Re:

    The restroom?

    I wonder if he tweets whilst taking a crap ... double plus crap.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    TRX, 18 Feb 2019 @ 7:12pm

    In the early 2000s there were still less than six major gateways from the USA to the rest of the world. Though most were privately owned, all the foreign access points and NAPs are under NSA control as part of their charter, plus the internet originated as part of the US national defense structure; being able to cut off outside attackers easily would be part of the original design.

    Many smaller countries, all international phone and internet connections go through their Postal-Telegraph systems, sometimes with a single choke point.

    Britain, Australia, and China already firewall themselves from the rest of the world, and Pakistan was working on it last I heard. Can't have evil foreign badthink contaminating the citizenry, you know.

    If Russia can't cut itself off from the rest of the world and still operate, it should be able to; it's basic national security stuff. Flip it; what if the rest of the world cut Russia off? They still have to move data packets.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Call me Al, 19 Feb 2019 @ 5:22am

    Re: Re: I with them luck

    I think the point here is that Russia wants the internet to continue to work in Russia even when isolated from the rest of the world.

    Syria just went dark.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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