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Russia Possibly Testing Internet Kill Switch

FILE - An employee is seen working at the headquarters of Kaspersky Labs, a computer security company in Moscow.

FILE - An employee is seen working at the headquarters of Kaspersky Labs, a computer security company in Moscow.

Russian authorities are reportedly testing measures that they say will protect Russia’s Internet from foreign interference. But some worry the efforts are really aimed at finding ways to cut that nation off from the web during times of political crisis.

On Wednesday, communications minister Nikolay Nikiforov told the Russian state news service RIA Novosti that authorities were to begin testing various methods “to prevent Russia being cut off from the Internet from abroad.”

Nikiforov said much of Russia’s Internet traffic is actually routed through servers in Amsterdam, making the nation vulnerable to Western powers.

“We modelled what would happen if our respected foreign partners, under the influence of the latest mood of their politicians who play with sanctions, suddenly decide to take this or that measure against Russia,” Nikiforov told RIA Novosti. “Our task is to do what is needed so that the Russian Internet will carry on working independently of the opinion of colleagues, whatever sanctions policy decisions they decide to take.”

The Moscow-based news site Slon is reporting that Andrey Semerikov, head of the Russian telecommunications provider ER-Telekom, told reporters earlier in October that such tests took place in the spring of 2015. Semerikov is quoted as saying that the Russian Internet monitor Roskomnadzor sent Russian Internet service providers (ISPs) instructions how to block traffic from various foreign sources using a technique known as DPI, or deep packet inspection. DPI allows ISPs to scan the contents of data as it passes through network hubs.

Semerikov said the DPI tests were ultimately unsuccessful because hundreds of small Russian ISPs, over which Roskomnadzor has little influence, did not participate.

Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonskiy disputed that account, telling the Russia-based Interfax news service that no such tests occurred or have been scheduled. “Roskomnadzor had nothing to do with these actions and is not aware of their results,” Ampelonskiy said.

FILE - Group employees work in a hall in their office building in Moscow, Russia.

FILE - Group employees work in a hall in their office building in Moscow, Russia.

‘CIA project’

Russian officials have made no secret of their desire to exert more control over the web. Russian President Vladimir Putin famously called the Internet a “CIA project,” specifically designed to weaken Russia’s government and punish it economically. Putin has repeatedly vowed to build a Russia-only intranet to keep “false information” about his regime at bay and, in the words of blogger and Putin critic Andrei Malgin, has “vowed to kill off the blogosphere.”

Due to the Internet’s decentralized design, it’s not unusual for large portions of web traffic in and out of nations to be routed through switches thousands of miles away. Amsterdam is a key point for global inter-continental Internet traffic. It’s likely much of European web data flows through hubs in or near the Netherlands.

A Russia analyst at the cyber-security firm TAIA Global, who asked to remain unnamed, told VOA that a recent analysis showed a limited number of data pathways into and out of Russia, and concluded that all principal data exchange points into and out of that nation are government-controlled.

“My analytic conclusion, reached at the time, was that they were structuring the Internet so it could be disconnected quickly if desired,” the analyst told VOA via email. “Putin’s first ‘Concept on Russian Internet Security’ identified this as a problem in 2001 and, in my view, they’ve taken it seriously,” the analyst said.

The analyst went on to say that rapid disconnection from the Internet has been and remains a design objective of the Putin administration, and that key Internet infrastructure is either owned by Moscow or under its control.

That said, TAIA’s Russia analyst said it remains a very difficult thing for any nation to completely wipe itself from the global web, let alone a nation as large and with as much Internet access as Russia.

“No disconnect would be perfect, since people usually have unacknowledged satellite connections and could even connect via sat phones,” the analyst told VOA. “However, as a practical matter, they could disconnect and run an internal system.”

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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