State of the internet: More fragile than we thought

The case of a Georgian woman knocking out internet network for her entire country while searching for scrap metal shows how little it takes to leave us virtually stranded.

It's often said that the Internet was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Cold War tensions led US defence experts to call for a network that could still work even if part of it was damaged. However, a recent report shows the internet is much more vulnerable than we thought.

Countries are increasingly using the internet as a weapon, and abroken cable or a repressive government can take out the internet for millions or even take entire countries offline.

It's a war zone out there

Cable cuts weren't the only threat to the Internet covered by Akamai's report. Over the last two years, the internet has increasingly become a battlefield. The report said that Myanmar topped the list as a source of attack traffic, beating out both the US and Taiwan.

Opposition website, the Democratic Voice of Burma, said thecountry had become the world's top cyber-warrior.

The report said that Myanmar's sudden appearance was unusual and that attacks coming from the country were more targetted than the attacks originating in the US in comparison.

TheDemocratic Voice of Burmasaid:

"A spate of DDoS, or distributed denial of service,attacksagainst exiled media websites last year are suspected to have been launched by Burmese government operatives, although the sources of the attacks were located in more than 30 countries."

DDoS attacks direct huge volumes of traffic at a site, overwhelming its ability to cope. Often the traffic spike is generated using a network of compromised computers, referred to as a 'botnet'.

In terms of attack traffic, India appeared in the top 10 sources for the first time since the fourth quarter of 2009, landing at number 7 on the list. While it accounted for a higher percentage of attack traffic, the number of attacks coming from India actually declined quarter or quarter, the report noted.

Myanmar might be a new warrior on the digital battlefield, but it was already a crowded place. TheFBI traced has traced an infiltration of the IMF computers back to China, although theIMF refused to "finger point at this time". The US said that it now views a serious cyber-attack as an act of war. "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks," a US military official told the Wall Street Journal, although it's unclear how serious of an attack would trigger military retaliation.

We'll have to figure out the ground rules of this new virtual warfare.

Cut off from the net

Of course, one strategy for this new network-centric war is to blind advanced countries. It's frighteningly easy to knock a country offline.

It's hard to imagine the network withstanding a nuclear blast if a woman in Georgia searching for scrap metal can knock out the network for her country and neighbouring Armenia. But that is exactly what happened, according toState of the Internet Report by network management company Akamai.

State of the internet: More fragile than we thought

The more connections to the outside world a country has, the better able it is to withstand even major cable cuts.kevinspencer/Flickr

Scrap scavenging is a major business in Georgia, and a 75-year-old woman was searching for copper cables there to sell when she cut a fibre optic cable with her spade, causing "90 percent of private and corporate internet users in neighboring Armenia to lose access for nearly 12 hours". She was dubbed the "spade-hacker" by local media, and when questioned after her arrest she said, "I have no idea what the Internet is."

While the Internet can withstand cable cuts locally, if a major fibre optic cable is cut, it can slow or bring to a near standstill internet service for a country or a region. For example, twice in 2008 - once in January and again in December -major submarine cables cut near Egypt caused outages or slow internet service across the Middle East and even in India.

The more connections to the outside world a country has, the better able it is to withstand even major cable cuts. The report highlighted how the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami in Japan briefly showed a drop in traffic, but the country remained online and traffic increased as Japanese went to the Internet for news and information. Governments are going to have to step up efforts to add more redundancy to networks or face all to easy disruptions when cables are cut.

Governments silence the 'net

Of course, the world became aware this year of how easily a repressive government can silence the internet by simply pulling the plug. Countries around the world, including Iran and China, have long censored the internet, but the report showed how Libya, Egypt and Syria year chose to shutdown the Internet almost entirely to prevent protesters from organising and voicing upset online.

Network monitoring company Renesys said at the time:

"Every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world."

The Egyptian government took the country offline for almost four days, but as Renesys said, "they have utterly failed to regain control of the evolving situation". Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February, a little more than a week after the Internet shutdown.

Libya and Syria followed suit. In Syria, it hasn't prevented protesters from getting videos of the military crackdown to an international media that the government has barred from covering the violence against its own people.

With these attacks and the role that the internet played in the Arab Spring protests and revolutions, it has led some to call for the internet to be deemed a human right. UN special rapporteur Frank La Rue said in June:

the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights. As such, facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States.

In other developments from the report:

• China's average connection speed has grown by nearly half since the first quarter of 2008, and exceeded 1 Mbps for the first time in the first quarter 2011.

• In the United States, for the first time, 51 percent of the devices sold were smartphones. Globally, the average is 26 percent.

• One-third of all smartphones sold were sold in the United States.

• Of the 55 countries that Akamai analysed for their adoption of "high broadband", more than 5 Mbps, "China and India were the only two with high broadband adoption rates below 1 percent- they achieved 0.5 percentand 0.4 percent adoption respectively".

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