What if the world wide web suddenly went dark? No Netflix? No YouTube? No Facebook? While this may sound like bliss for some, the full extent of our reliance on internet would quickly become evident. And it would be catastrophic.
And this may be why Russia has suddenly become so interested in ensuring its internet is isolated, entirely internal – and resilient.
It’s no secret that Moscow has one of the most effective cyber-attack capabilities in the world. It has been blamed for a recent spate of incidents, such as the hack of the US Democratic Party server and sabotage of Ukrainian power plants and businesses Recently, four Russian intelligence agents were expelled from the Netherlands after being caught attempting to hack a chemical weapons analysis facility investigating the Novichock nerve-agent attack on the UK city of Salisbury.
So it really comes as no surprise that the Kremlin wants to isolate its own internet from the rest of the world.
Less obvious, however, is the full extent of the why.
At first thought, there’s the well-known risk of having sensitive data hacked.
China in particular has been accused of co-ordinating cyber attacks to steal key industrial and military technologies in its bid to ‘leapfrog’ the West as a leading world superpower.
But less obvious is the potential for physical impact.
The first act in a state-sanctioned cyber war would almost certainly be a total surprise.
And the potential of such a strike is apocalyptic.
And at least one cybersecurity specialist expects digital war to break out within months.
“I believe a major cyber attack is on its way in 2019, causing disruption and devastation,” writes Rajinder Tumber. “The only limitation will be the attacker’s imagination.”
As the recent BBC Focus ‘Thought Experiment’ highlights, in just a few short decades the internet has become indispensable. It affects every aspect of our daily lives.
And once pulled out from beneath us, there’s nothing to fall back upon.
In the first 24 hours, most businesses will simply be forced to halt trading. Digital payment systems will be down. Online banking would be out. Even mobile phones and the landline telephone network won’t work.
They’re all totally reliant on the internet.
The economic cost will be colossal: major international internet services Google and Facebook will lose more than half a billion dollars in advertising revenue within the first day.
But that’s barely even the start of it.
The flow of fuel and food through the suburbs halts. Despite not having any way to buy or sell it, petrol stations and grocery stores also need networks to order and distribute fresh stock.
They don’t have paper order forms, or even the addresses, for suppliers.
They’ve long since stopped being needed.
Then, after less than a week, national infrastructure such as shipping lanes and the power grids linking Australia’s states will collapse. Power stations need to talk to each other to keep the electrical system in balance. Once this stops happening, inevitable power surges and ‘brownouts’ will take their toll on stressed infrastructure.
With no power, law and order — and civilisation — will end.
It could represent a worldwide collapse. And the death toll would be horrific.
We’re all vulnerable.
It was only 2016 that NATO officially recognised the internet as being a theatre of war.
And nations such as Australia have since discovered most of their key talent have long since left for overseas in the search of paying jobs.
Russia’s Moscow Times calls the draft bill presented by the Kremlin an attempt to give government a ‘kill-switch’ — the power to divorce the nation’s internet from the outside world.
Members of parliament put the legislation forward in December, citing the need to respond to an “aggressive” US national cybersecurity strategy.
It did not detail what such ‘aggression’ entailed, though Russia has itself been repeatedly blamed for serious attacks on the internet services of many nations.
But the ability to ‘unplug’ itself from the rest of the world is also intended to test a key demand by President Vladimir Putin: the ability of Russia to remain online independently.
He wants to disconnect international servers.
He wants to be able to limit and monitor the flow of information.
He wants Russia’s internet to be internally resilient.
Being able to remain online once the remainder of the world’s internet collapses would give Moscow an overwhelming advantage. Communications would still work. The wheels of industry would still turn. The lights would remain on.
Its military would remain operational.
But Russian industry is concerned about an impending test ‘unplug’ for the exact same reason: it could seriously damage their businesses.
No country has ever been disconnected from the internet deliberately.
The Moscow Times cites experts as criticising the bill as too vague and impossible to implement. It estimates the cost of major disruptions to Russia’s international internet links could cost the economy up to $A3 billion a year.
All that is known is the test disconnect must be carried out by April 1.
The stated reason for the hurried experiment is to inform the drafting of legislation due to be passed by that date. Russia’s parliament wants to know what physical and economic hurdles remain, so it can legislate to ensure any internet isolation is complete and effective.
The potential of an attack on digital infrastructure is easily evident.
Cable disruptions outside Alexandria, Egypt, in 2008 cut 70 per cent of the country’s internet, affecting millions.
This, like the recent incident that isolated Tonga, was likely an accident. Smaller incidents happen up to 200 times a year.
Then there are malicious attempts at extortion, such as the 2017 WannaCry exploit which encrypted computer documents and demanded a ransom. It infected 200,000 computers in 150 nations.
But a December 2015 attack on Ukraine’s power grid was deliberate and state-directed. The capital, Kiev, went dark for hours. More recently, Russia was behind an attack on Ukrainian businesses – but the fallout affected a variety of international corporations.
Then there’s when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed how malware was used to damage Iran’s nuclear power system.
“While these attacks didn’t lead to reported loss of life, it must make you wonder about the next one,” Tumber writes. “Will 2019 bring cyber attack-related deaths? Would emergency services be able to operate if the country lost power and essential operating systems during a cyber attack?”
In the case of Russia, its relentless digital aggression is beginning to meet resistance.
“These cyber attacks serve no legitimate national security interest, instead impacting the ability of people around the world to go about their daily lives free from interference, and even their ability to enjoy sport,” UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said of Moscow’s actions.
“The GRU’s actions are reckless and indiscriminate: they try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries; they are even prepared to damage Russian companies and Russian citizens … Our message is clear: together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability.”
The words are strong.
But what of the actions?
Australia’s Signals Directorate (ASD) cyber security centre was only established in July 2018. It has been tasked with securing the nation’s vital digital infrastructure. But, in 2016, Australia’s government admitted it posessed an offensive cyber ability – and was actively using it against Islamic State.
WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION
“We must keep our fingers on the pulse!” warns Tumber. “This year will bring us lightning speed 5G technology, advancements in drone technology, smart cities, driverless cars, artificial intelligence, blockchain, the internet of Things (IoT), and more! …
“It only takes one small weakness to allow an attacker to create a giant problem — potentially even a global problem.”
Attacks on the internet can be digital, such as the previously mentioned malware. But they can also be physical.
Cut a few key lines, destroy a few central hubs, whole sectors of the internet can be isolated. Cut the right cables at the right time, and the entire global network could be brought down for weeks or months.
And Russian submarines have been repeatedly spotted lingering about vulnerable undersea cable networks and hubs.
The threat is now being regarded as so serious that the US Department of Defence is investigating the potential use of the internet as a weapon of mass destruction.
Essentially, it regards offensive cyber weapons as having the same destructive potential as nerve gas and nuclear bombs.
The US Defence Threat Reduction Agency, the US Air Force’s Institute for National Security Studies and the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction banded together in December to call for research papers analysing the full scope of the threat.
“These operations are becoming increasingly sophisticated in nature, and steadily more integrated into adversary military doctrine, strategies, plans and operations that already incorporate and integrate conventional and unconventional weapons, to include WMD,” the call reads.