In the mid-1980s I communicated with people from the Soviet Union who I had met on PCBoard, FidoNet and other electronic bulletin board system networks. This was before we called it the Internet.
I met Levon, a Ph.D. in Moscow who ran the International Computer Club, because I was also involved with PC user groups.
Connections were slow, but I had it easy, typing away from my home or office. Levon and his small group had to be constantly on the move. The KGB was trying to find them because they were “dangerous” to the state.
They had a dot matrix printer and a telephone modem so they could share news of the political scene with outsiders, like me, and that was not allowed.
I got to meet Levon and a colleague at a computer convention after the fall of the Soviet Union. They told how their connectivity gave them great power — power only the government had held before. In some ways, their newsletters and online messages contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.
That’s why Nepal shut down the Internet to its people in 2005 and Myanmar (Burma) in 2007. In 2009, China cut off the Internet to Xinjiang province for 10 months after rioting there. China also censors certain websites, provides its own search engines (full of propaganda), or makes Net usage or e-mail access prohibitively expensive.
But when Egypt shut down the Net and mobile phone access in late January in an attempt to quell government protesters, it was historic. Egypt’s four main service providers shut off service in rapid succession, cutting off about 97 percent of the country’s Internet traffic.
“Unlike other incidents where governments in Iran, Tunisia and elsewhere tried to control the flow of information by throttling specific Internet services and sites, the Egyptian government seems to have simply pulled the plug on all Internet services nationwide,” ComputerWorld
Protestors, who had been using the Internet as a primary means of organization and communication with the rest of the world, found work-arounds, including going back to those old-fashioned dial-up connections. Google even offered a phone number that would allow messages to be posted to Twitter.
When connections were restored, the first sites accessed were Twitter for news and Flickr for photos.
The speed and methodology has evolved since the days of the Soviet Union techies, but the old adage that you should never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel has been updated by the computer revolution.
Clearly, the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was a victory for the power of free speech and the impact of social media, but the lingering effects of the Internet shutdown are not as apparent.
“It is astonishing because Egypt has so much potentially to lose in terms of credibility with the Internet community and the economic world,” Jim Cowie, chief technology officer and co-founder of Renesys, told the San Francisco Chronicle
. “It will set Egypt back for years in terms of its hopes of becoming a regional Internet power.”
Egypt’s Internet shutdown has caused some to wonder what might happen here in the United States if, say, terrorists tried to shut down the Internet as a way to cripple our economy.
But the U.S. Internet was designed by the military. It has no central point of command, so communications can even be maintained in the event of a nuclear attack. Because we have hundreds of ISPs rather than four like in Egypt, a scenario similar to what happened there is unlikely.
More probable, especially as it relates to business, would be a denial of service attack that overruns a target’s system. Recent takedowns of Bank of America, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal disabled the companies for several hours.
“In a web-centric, data-centric world, it has become ever more critical to have reliable and restorable backups,” says Kevin Goodman, managing director of business development for BlueBridge, a Cleveland-based provider of disaster recovery and business continuity services. “The life blood of a company, institution or government is tied to the reliability, high availability and security of its data.”
Maybe that’s why Ray Dickenson, chief technology officer of Florida-based security firm SafeCentral, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
that a slow infiltration of a high-level network might be the most dangerous threat to the U.S. by slowly but surely pilfering or changing key data.
“An all-out denial of service attack is the loudest, it would make the biggest splash,” Dickenson told the paper, “but it’s not the scariest.”
article offers this: “Imagine if malware infected computers that were connected to the New York Stock Exchange and, instead of bringing down the network, changed stock prices. Would we even
notice right away?”
The answer is likely no.
And that’s why it’s important to reconsider our own disaster plans now. Too often we take for granted our ability to communicate. Only when something world-changing or catastrophic happens do we understand its value — often at a huge price.
If connectivity and data security are critical to your business, you’d better take multiple, redundant precautions — even if that means locating a dial-up connection or bulletin-board service.
Great Lakes Geek Dan Hanson (email@example.com) wonders if Egypt without the Internet would just be called Gypt.