As part of it’s bid to reduce dependence on western technology, and especially the US organisations that built and run the internet, today, 1st November 2019, Russia is to begin installing the tools to isolate the country from the Internet. Announced on the 24th of September, the move is a precursor to creating Russia’s own national internet network, announced earlier this year.
As Sir John Sawers, former chief, Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) commented at the Digital Transformation Expo last month, Russia (and China) are expected to, "create their own internets, in case they need it in a crisis," adding, " and once they can run separate from the global internet, it will become the method of choice." As a consequence he says: "We will lose the global qualities of the internet, but it’s the direction we are going."
SC asked Alex Henthorn-Iwane VP of product marketing at ThousandEyes, a commentator on Russia’s strategy, is it really practical for Russia to disconnect from the global internet?
He replied: "It depends on what the "disconnect" really means. If it means a full disconnection, they could try it but it would probably be messy and unnecessarily expensive to do. If it means testing in small, incremental stages, then that's doable if they allocate sufficient time, attention and resources to this. China established its Internet policy in the early days of the Internet - this allowed their entire ecosystem to evolve organically with the great firewall in place. However Russia evolved its Internet in a way that was very much integrated with other European and global Internet services. Those roots will be very difficult to separate. So to be successful technically they will need to devote a fair amount of time, work and investment.
"What is clear is that Russia seems firmly committed (at least at the policy statement level) to the path of Internet sovereignty. This is likely to create a challenging operating environment for global technology companies in the near term."
SC: How exactly would Russia do it?
Henthorn-Iwane: "If Russia were to successfully implement a way to funnel all traffic in and out of the country through some selected, nationally-controlled Internet Exchange Point (IXPs) facilities and networking gear, then they could set up a system and policies to force all DNS lookups from user browsers to flow through a nationally controlled proxy DNS service. For example, a DNS server run by an ISP could be forced to point to a DNS server run by the government that then can enforce different types of policies.
"For example, the URL for a foreign website ( eg Guardian) or app (eg Facebook) that 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 websites. This is commonly used as part of the Chinese "Great Firewall" today. A second line of enforcement would be to drop any DNS lookups that aren't coming through the national DNS proxy service.
"For a typical user, that might mean they won't be able to use certain services unless they use a VPN and are willing to play a continuous game of cat and mouse with the enforcement mechanisms, as is the case in China."
SC: What are the likely consequences? Does Russia have enough of its own sites to provide the information its companies need? What would Russian financial institutions or other global operations do regarding real-time information?
Henthorn-Iwane: "A lot of businesses access the Internet from outside the country. There is also a lot of investments that rely on the Internet. Western countries use western cloud services. This law could be considered as a defensive weapon of Internet technology - investment in countries own infrastructure. Russia won’t flip the switch - it’s economy is very connected with the rest of the world. A great example is China - lots of western companies operating there are able to use western services such as salesforce, microsoft office and etc. I don’t think we will see cataclysmic shut off."
SC: Is the Russian network adequate to re-route traffic if say a major server farm went out of action in a true conflict situation? Would its information needs be better served utilising the global internet at a time when its own networks are under attack - or to what extent would its communications be vulnerable to interception?
Henthorn-Iwane: "It’s a bit difficult to know, because the real question is, what would "true conflict" actually look like? For example, there are ways to harness botnets that span many countries to launch attacks from many angles. There are advanced persistent threat infiltrations into systems that may have been activated years ago."
SC: What are the consequences for the non-Russian world if it disconnects?
Henthorn-Iwane: "It somewhat depends on the nature of the disconnection. If Russia were to instruct its ISPs to cut off their connections with other ISPs, then Internet traffic that would naturally route through those Russian ISPs would have to find other routes. That could create congestion-related disruptions during a disconnection event.
"In terms of applications and services, most of the rest of the world doesn’t heavily rely on the Russian Internet for core apps or services, but a disconnection clearly would be disruptive to businesses that are invested in Russia. Any foreign companies with a presence in Russia might be unable to function if they use externally hosted SaaS tools for example. Any application running in Russia that depends on APIs hosted outside of Russia could cease to function."
SC: Is this likely to set a precedent - are there others expected to do the same - and if so, would that spell the end of the internet as a global phenomena?
Henthorn-Iwane: "Let’s remember that despite the notion of "disconnecting," there are large incentives never to do so, primarily for trans-border trade reasons. China, despite all it’s Internet controls, hasn’t cut itself off from the Internet. If you’re operating as a foreign business in China, they allow you to use foreign-hosted SaaS for example. If they didn’t, it would be a hard place to make investments in. That holds true for any country.
"There are already a number of countries that exert some level of control over their Internet boundaries, but nonetheless for those trade reasons they choose not to restrict things too heavily, lest they destroy the business value that the Internet brings to them."