Significant disconnection from the Internet over conflict: An irrational fear

Significant disconnection from the Internet over conflict: An irrational fear

At the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, many analyzes sounded the alarm about the danger of a large-scale shutdown of the Internet due to a possible malicious action. However, the Internet is structured without any centralization, which gives it an intrinsic flexibility that is hard to question. Trying to cut off this network of networks is illogical and unrealistic from a technical point of view.

At the beginning of March 2022, the conflict in Ukraine, which was in its infancy at that time, raised fears of a major disruption of the Internet, especially because there would be a risk of sabotaging the transatlantic submarine cables separating the American and European continents. Such fear is not justified given the very function of the Internet and the wellsprings of resilience within it.

The intrinsic flexibility of the Internet

A network of networks where information is circulated, the Internet is based on a global network that always provides a corridor of data, in particular thanks to the Border Gateway Protocol. This BGP protocol automates the optimal path calculations for Internet traffic and indicates the closest active paths. Fully automated, BGP is out of anyone’s hands and updates a new traffic route in 20-30 minutes at most in the event of a disruption.

Another power of the Internet: decentralization. If we go back to the Internet backbone between America and Europe, the highways are filled with many hubs of communication. In Europe, Paris, Marseille, Frankfurt, London, in particular, it tracks traffic through communication hubs connected to many road, telephone or satellite routes. It is unrealistic to imagine that the infrastructures of all these communication relays “collapse” at the same time. And BGP will always find an alternative route. Evidence: In Ukraine, where many large cities suffered massive destruction, the Internet stopped, and this is not the only fact of the Starlink satellite network presented as reinforcements. This country has a variety of operators that share the market, a very good distribution of information flows, especially terrestrial and mobile, and seven communication data centers that BGP relies on to route traffic. The situation in Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict shows that the resilience of the Internet is much stronger than we imagine.

Submarine Cable Sabotage: As Low As Possibility As Internet links across the Atlantic contribute to the proper functioning of the global Internet, submarine cables fuel many concerns about potential acts of sabotage. However, this theory does not really have any basis in many respects. First of all, these infrastructures serve the Internet used by the population, but certainly not by armies who resort to other types of networks, in particular satellite ones. Therefore, transatlantic cables present no military interest in the context of the conflict. In addition, cutting these cables scattered by several hundred in gigantic areas is a pharaonic task that requires equally disproportionate means at sea. Not to mention the impossibility of carrying out such an operation quickly and discreetly and would immediately be the subject of a reaction. It is not realistic.

If we imagine that only a few of the most strategic cables are cut, BGP will always find another way to direct the flow of information between continents.

Even if we imagine the unlikely worst-case scenario in which a malicious actor manages to neutralize them all, the Internet still does not fall, neither in Europe nor on the American continent: in such a situation, the traffic between the two continents is certainly cut off, but certainly not locally thanks to the full network communication infrastructure. Undoubtedly, users will get less content and at a lower speed, but communication and information exchange will continue.

Disconnecting a country from the Internet as punishment: Another irrelevant scenario

Another feared scenario: is the case of a country like Russia completely disconnected from the global Internet under a penalty such as exclusion from the Swift system for the exchange of banking information. This kind of cut offers no benefit again, and proves disproportionate to Swift’s exclusion. In fact, unlike Swift which is an application system, the Internet constitutes a flow of information. Disconnecting a country from the global Internet amounts to artificially disabling BGP (it will always be), but above all, one is depriving oneself of precious Internet highways, particularly between Europe and Asia in the said case.

Thus, the Internet certainly does not have any characteristics of a weapon of war, but it offers all guarantees against the risk of massive disconnection.

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