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The United Nations now considers Internet access a basic human right. [PDF]

Despite the questionable effectiveness of Internet blackouts in silencing a populace and preventing uprisings1, it's worrying that governments can flick a kill switch, as they did in Egypt on 27 January 2011. To that end...

Can concerned citizens take any security measures to prevent government-led Internet blackouts, and if not, what methods can they use to establish secure Web access when their country's ISPs go down?

1: Conan O'Brien famously said that, if the Egyptian government wanted people to stay at home and do nothing, they should turn the Internet back on. [source: YouTube]

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+1 @Nick: Nice question, and based on current news. Cheers! –  blunders Jun 9 '11 at 23:14
    
Move out of the country? –  SLaks Jun 10 '11 at 2:49
    
But @slaks that will leave the United States empty LOL. –  Andrew Russell Jun 10 '11 at 11:17
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See also the related advice to such regimes about the likelihood that citizens will route around it, and the unexpected consequences of a blackout, from this question: What lessons about Denial of Service can we learn from Egypt's "experiment"? - IT Security –  nealmcb Jun 11 '11 at 2:24

5 Answers 5

Access to water is essential to human survival but that does not mean the government does not have a vital role. Their critical infrastructure role can be done with respect for citizens' rights or not. In a democracy the answer for citizens lies not in security solutions but rather in the ballot box.

---updated with expansion below---

The Internet is a government creation given to the citizens via a grant to industry. There are many controls that any government can exert over the Internet to curb or stop access completely. A change to DNS, a directive to ISPs, or simply tracking and punishing behaviors through technical or social means (neighbor watch of the coffee bar) would do the trick.

Consider controls over radio. Anyone can acquire the technical means to broadcast but they don’t due to government control. That same control could be used to stifle citizen access to the Internet in a time of national emergency.

The answer here is political forces are how government actions are controlled. The good news is economic forces have converted to political force to prevent the dark vision at the heart of this question. The bad news is those same economic forces may well push the Internet away from the model we know today to something with even more tracking or throttling based on service contracts or commercial alliances.

Thus the best answer for the citizen is to exert political force effectively or else prepare for changes beyond their control.

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How does this answer the question? –  this.josh Jun 9 '11 at 19:41
    
I take your point. I should have explained why something the government provided can be taken away by something as simple as taking control of DNS. Nothing a citizen does short of controlling that government will be effective. –  zedman9991 Jun 9 '11 at 19:54
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I think this is the correct answer, or something close to this - namely, the free political process, not subversive technical solutions. I think you should flesh it out a bit more, and this could be a very good answer. –  AviD Jun 9 '11 at 23:45
    
Not exactly the direction I meant... but as far as a security PoV goes, I guess I agree with you, the difference of opinion is political (I believe the government shouldnt have that right in the first place, and our responsibility as citizens is to push for smaller, non-monopolizing government power.) –  AviD Jun 11 '11 at 22:07

All those nice Internet packets have to go somewhere. In some countries, the government has the power to simply cut off the lines, at which point the game is pretty much over.

The two main countermeasures are:

  • Use transmission channels that the said government cannot afford to switch off, and does not have enough technology and power to efficiently filter. For instance, a few years ago, there were about 60 thousand Internet users in Syria who were actually using modems over land lines, calling foreign ISPs (I am quoting this figure from memory, I may be wrong; but the principle remains).

  • Use new transmission channels which are out of reach of the cut-the-wire policy. Namely, satellite internet access. Some countries ban satellite phones, but banning and effectively preventing are two distinct things. It has been reported that Libya jams (or used to jam) satellite phone communications.

(Now I must say that your question implicitly assumes that the said government-led Internet blackout is bad, and that trying to keep Internet access in that situation is rightful, though illegal. This is a controversial issue, to say the least.)

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Preventing government-led Internet blackouts is highly unlikely, since governments have very close ties to the telecom industry for a reason.

By the time Effects-Based Operations on that scale are in play, the likely outcome of a conflict is already decided. Voice communication would be of much more value, and that's a completely different question in my opinion.

To answer your question though, while satellite internet access as Thomas Pornin points out is possible, using dail-up connections over a land-lines or mobile phones to international access points that in turn connects to a encrypted channel would be the most likely solution. International dial-up numbers will only work with international calling service that's working and methods to pass the audio signal to the access point via the phone. Here's an example of instruction on how to connect, and a list of dail-up ISPs access points.

Ham radio users also might be of use, for example, Telecomix, a group of Europe-based Internet activists, were aiding Egyptian protesters for days. They were trying to establish contact by amateur radio or shortwave, and then forward the audio signals from modems in Egypt to the Internet.

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I highly encourage everyone interested in this sort of thing to get a HAM radio license and participate in local field days: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_Day_(amateur_radio) It's basically a disaster/government shutdown/zombie apocalypse preparation exercise; you learn how to build a telecommunications infrastructure from the ground up. –  user502 Jul 12 '11 at 13:01

Telecommunications providers should be more diverse, as in allowance of CLECs, as well as wireless/satellite/etc providers. WiMax is a very empowering technology, as is GSM in general. BurningMan and other events have setup GSM towers using very little, inexpensive equipment.

Fiber and the standard T1/SONET hierarchy allow for all kinds of diversity in paths and equipment. SONET especially has BLSR (2x and 4x), which are bi-directional line-switched rings. Fully Optical Networks have additional capabilities -- I remember Cerent/Cisco in particular defining PPMN (path-protected mesh networks), which have evolved in several ways through various Optical Network equipment providers.

The best way to ensure diversity is to lean on the documentation and processes around provisioning. LinuxHomeNetworking did an article on relocating data centers that covers Data Circuit Provisioning. In the article, a few terms are described, such as the DLR (or design layout record/report). The DLR is basically documentation demonstrating the diversity of telecommunications connections. Customers (or potential customers) need to ask for their DLRs and make sure that what they are buying is what they want.

Additionally, BGP Multihoming and mesh networking protocols can provide redundancy at the higher network layers. ATM had first made this possible with PNNI, but MPLS replaced it with constraint-based routing. Wireless mesh networks have increased in popularity over the years. The MIT Roofnet Project (SrcRR) became Meraki Networks. LocustWorld MeshAP took off for many years in the UK. Small branch projects like the Seattle Wireless and Portland Wireless groups utilized many disparate mesh technologies (HSLS was very popular). A few commercial providers in these areas also celebrated success.

To best answer your question directly, I think you'll enjoy the resources available at the Wireless Networking in the Developing World website.

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According to U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors Abroad - NYTimes.com, the US State Department is funding several efforts to support a "liberation-technology movement". They include independent cellphone networks, mesh networking and an “Internet in a suitcase” Hopefully they'll also document their approches so that they can be replicated independently elsewhere by citizens.

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Wow, that sounds very interesting... curious how that will play out - and, if they will support detouring around U.S. censors, too... :) –  AviD Jul 12 '11 at 7:14

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