Is a net blackout possible down under?

Is a net blackout possible down under?

Summary: After internet connectivity in Egypt was reportedly severed for political reasons, what would it take to blackout network access in Australia?

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After internet connectivity in Egypt was reportedly severed for political reasons, what would it take to blackout network access in Australia?

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(LED world map image by Chris Dlugosz, CC2.0)

There are a number of methods that could be used to take down Australia's internet communication.

Arteries

Of the fibre cables linking Australia to the world, the most significant is the Southern Cross Cable which links the nation, and neighbour New Zealand, to the United States.

If this were to be cut or sabotaged, then most Australians would be cut off from much of the internet. And such a feat is quite possible, according to one source familiar with the layout of the crucial fibre networks, speaking under the condition of anonymity.

"If anything happened to Southern Cross, there would be big problems for Australia," he said. "Sabotaging the cable would need devotion but it would not need to be [physically] severed … to take it out for several days."

The source would not be drawn on how the cable could be deactivated, but it could be as simple as a phone call and "a line on a router configuration file", according to Arbor Networks chief scientist Craig Labovitz.

Flick of a switch

Approaching Australia's internet service providers would be the most efficient way for taking Australia offline. In such an unlikely event, the Federal Government would need to flex regulatory muscle to force providers such as Telstra, Optus, iiNet, TPG and Internode to cease routing traffic.

"If ISPs stop resolving, unless you are operating with a provider that is outside the country [which] ignores the directive or is not asked, everyone would be stuck," The Australian Domain Administrator (auDA) chief executive Chris Disspain said.

Based on the multitude of media reports over the last few days, the Egyptian Government has proved that this method works to devastating effect. The nation's providers deactivated telephone and data services, sending the nation into an effective communications blackout. Vodafone said it had complied as if it hadn't, the government had the power to unplug them with more disruptive effects.

"The internet is people power and makes governments very worried," communications analyst Paul Budde said. "If the top five or six providers were forced to flick the switch, that would blackout Australia."

Budde said such a scenario could be exacerbated under the National Broadband Network, assuming that it reduces the number of redundant links and allows the government to terminate services provided by the network's wholesale operator, NBN Co.

Smart targeting

Australia's domain name system servers are another vulnerable point and are critical to maintaining access to Australia's websites.

If the seven Australian-based DNS servers and those spread internationally were taken down at the root level, access to .au domain names would fail, according to auDA's Disspain.

"Qantas.com would work, but not qantas.com.au. It would not resolve," Disspain said. "But [the government] would be better to stop internet service providers from resolving."

And Disspain said he would fiercely protect the DNS servers that are under auDA control. The government would need to jump through difficult regulatory hoops to enforce its powers under the Telecommunications Act, unless auDA could be convinced it was in the national interest. "But that is entering the world of the ridiculous," Disspain said.

Attack!

Alternatively, a network attack on Australia could damage our internet access capabilities or give the government reason to order a blackout.

Internet providers and auDA maintain that they can defend against attacks such as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), in which links are overloaded with junk traffic data, and they have proven to do so in the past.

But large attacks usually cause momentary disruption, and can at least be a pain for networking companies while they last.

Industry has typically been reticent to discuss defence techniques, and even more tight-lipped to mention counter-attacks that are known to be used against large DDoS attacks.

"We can stop DDoS," Disspain said, without alluding to techniques.

Budde said that the government may terminate internet connectivity if Australia came under a serious and sustained attack of a scale as yet unseen.

Survival kit

In the event that Australia is sent back to the digital stone age, tools from the era may be a citizen's salvation.

The humble dial-up modem could be used to connect users to the internet over a fixed line if a connection could be made using an offshore internet provider.

But in the hypothetical scenario that the government asked telecommunications providers to stop broadband services, it could also ask providers to stop all national communications services, including dial-up, Disspain said.

If that occurred, satellite communications could be used by those who possess a device capable of using the networks.

"Satellite links do not conform to national boundaries," Disspain said. "They are physically out of reach, but it is slow and would be crowded."

Tools still remain for those without satellite, fixed or mobile connectivity. Australian-developed "batphones", which do not require mobile or terrestrial connectivity but maintain contact using a mesh network, would allow people to communicate over variable distances.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Mobility, Networking, Security, Telcos

Darren Pauli

About Darren Pauli

Darren Pauli has been writing about technology for almost five years, he covers a gamut of news with a special focus on security, keeping readers informed about the world of cyber criminals and the safety measures needed to thwart them.

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Talkback

9 comments
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  • What legislative basis would the government have that would enable them to tell ISPs to stop routing traffic?
    pubcomm25
  • War, Cyber warfare, Commandeering; for either of those;
    anonymous
  • that is not a legislative basis...
    pubcomm
  • The legislative basis would be the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act:
    http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/viewtop/inforce/act+165+1989+FIRST+0+N
    mr.duget
  • I am intrigued that anybody thinks that a government, any government, needs a "legislative basis" to do something like this. Yes, it is an unlikely scenario here in Oz but as Egypt has shown us, when it is politically expedient to try and bring people to heel, then they do what they have to do. Mobile phones and the internet are 21st century tools and governments can use them to bring people under control the same way as they used guns in previous centuries. Look at what happens when Facebook goes down for 5 seconds. Millions of people go mental when deprived of it. Governments could use that power to control people now. You want your Facebook, ok, these are the conditions. YES, I know it is a very long bow to draw but just stop and think about it. Merely thinking it can't possibly happen, doesn't mean it can't happen. Now that Egypt has done it, they have shown all other governments that it can be done. That is the most dangerous precedent in all this.
    johnmelb
  • I think it's interesting that if the Government has a single point of Internet distribution (the NBN) and the Gov is in charge of it, then they only have to flip one switch and don't have to ask. Also the NBN allows more specific snooping/filtering/control. This single system allows too much control in my books, the Government should not own it! ISP's should own shares in it or something.
    texhead
  • LOL! Given that shutting down ISPs would be a national issue I doubt that would be relevant at all.
    pubcomm
  • If our current Internet infrastructure is as well-maintained as our Electricity infrastructure then it should be possible to cripple 90% of the Internet in only a few seconds. The Government has neither the right nor the capability to take us back to the digital stone age.

    If my ISP goes offline, my "mobile" devices are quite capable of reconnecting via a router next door or across the street. There are kids out there who are more computer savvy than the people posting on here, and it would take only weeks for an "undernet" to emerge using people's wireless routers and blue-tooth devices to bypass the entire system--an email may take three days to get across the country, but where I live that's still faster than Australia Post. Imagine a new Internet where EVERYONE is their own ISP and there's no such thing as usage or connection fees!

    Microsoft spends a fortune in time and money on "copy protecting" its software. Go and take a look for cracks: A google search on "windows 7 activation crack" yields greater than 70 million sites. Now, if Microsoft spent that same same time and money on a system that works "first time, every time" and sold it for $10.00 the money would be rolling in and it would not be worth anyone's time to make a fake copy.

    If the government wants to try regulating people by controlling their net access, it will only work on a short term basis. This is a technology that is growing way faster than legislation can ever hope to keep up. "The technology cat is out of the bag," and no government stands a chance in the long term of getting it back into the bag.
    Treknology
  • This is a response to Treknology's post. I have found it quite interesting reading the comments etc about the topic in question. Some of the comments expressed here are valid ones while most are just rubbish with little or no thought at all. I love my country, would fight for it and die for it if the need arose such as a new world war etc. But some people need to realise that life is not so black and white, that it is extremely hard or unpopular to make the right decision for the good of the people as a whole. The people of any nation have the right to view their opinions in a peaceful manner without violence. The situation in Egypt is extremely close to civil war if the powers that be do not get a handle on the current situation. Effectively cutting of all communications as the Egyptian government has done was a very affective, and the decision would not have been made lightly. People feed of each other’s passions, anger and fear when in groups or mobs like we are seeing on the TV at the moment. Once it starts it is very hard to stop and all rational behaviour goes out the window and turns into a feeding frenzy. The advent of the internet, mobile phones etc enables this behaviour to spread like a virus. We have the same issue here although on a smaller scale. Groups or individuals who communicate through mobiles to mass and gate crash parties, gang rapes etc Is there any difference? No. You could be right that the Egyptian government have ulterior motives for the communications blackout, but maybe, just maybe, whether they are guilty or not of anything, they just wanted to try and stop the situation from getting much, much worse than it already is. As to our government not being able to effectively force a total communications blackout here in Oz? They can absolutely do that easily and provisions already exist to do so now and in the future if the need arises. Oh and by the way, the government has every right to do it depending on the situation using any number of acts in accordance with the constitution which the people of Australia charter the government to abide by. Don't be so naive to think that our government does not have the right or powers to act in such away. Granted, some of the politicians are complete moron's, but I am very proud that our country, our form of government, our democracy and most important, our people, the Australian belief in a nation as a whole are above indiscriminate or such illegal behaviour. The comment about Microsoft is not even relevant here and warrants its own debate, but not here. I get the impression that you want everything to be free & everything in life just given to you with little or no effort on your part. Typical
    Anyway, even though I do not agree with your comments & you may not like mine either, that my friend is our right & I must commend you for at least attempting to debate or get involved in the discussion. After all, isn't that what true democracy is about, the freedom to debate, discuss or vote about anything we want? That may concern us all as a nation or as an individual?
    Damn right it is.
    TheCat041