Syria Outage Sheds Light on U.S. ‘Kill Switch’ Concerns

Networks in Syria and 60 other countries could be taken down with a few phone calls, but most western nations—including the U.S.—are a different matter.

Critics concerned that an "Internet kill switch" could be used to censor U.S. citizens from reaching the world should take heart in the Syrian outage, rather than worry that the U.S. government could manage the same feat, according to Internet intelligence firm Renesys.

In an analysis of the weekend outage, the firm found that Syria and 60 other countries are at a "severe risk" of being disconnected from the Internet because a lack of redundancy in their telecommunications connections to the outside world. Hotspots of political unrest—such as Tunisia, Myanmar and Libya—fall into this category, with only one or two outside lines to the global Internet. Other countries fall into two other categories—significant and low risk—while the United States, Canada and many Western European countries fall into a fourth category, "resistant."

The analysis shows that concerns that an Internet kill switch could cut people off are unwarranted, said Earl Zmijewski, vice president and general manager at Renesys.

"There are a lot of conspiracy theorists who think that [President] Obama is going to be able to shut off the Internet with a 'kill switch,' but the reality is quire a bit different," he said. "Syria is not the U.S., it is not Canada, and it's not Western Europe. There is no way to simply shut down connectivity."

On Nov. 29, amongst civil unrest, Syria was disconnected from the Internet. Government officials claimed opposition forces, referred to as "terrorists," were the cause the outage. Yet, content distribution network and security firm Cloudflare disputed that version of events. Pointing out that the country's Internet connections were systematically disconnected, Cloudflare concluded that a government shutdown was the most likely explanation.

"Syria has four physical cables that connect it to the rest of the Internet ... all four of these cables would have had to been cut simultaneously," said Matthew Prince, the company's CEO. "That is unlikely to have happened."

The analysis of the relative resistance of a country's network to disconnection is based on the number of providers that connect to the outside world, not the number of physical connections. Countries that had only one or two companies providing Internet service—in many cases, government-owned providers—were considered at severe risk, while countries with more than 40 providers are considered resistant.

Concerns over an Internet kill switch resurfaced following legislation introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., in 2010 that could have allowed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to shut down parts of the Internet in times of emergency. Modern proposals and Obama's executive order on cyber-security largely dropped the controversial wording.

Most citizens tend to worry about their government's power over the Internet. From comments on the analysis, Renesys found that tech-savvy individuals were more concerned with their country's vulnerability to being disconnected from the Internet than feeling that they had enough technical safeguards, James Cowie, CTO at Renesys, stated in the analysis.

"It's interesting that most people who are suggesting modifications to (our) model believe that their country is much more vulnerable to disconnection," Cowie wrote in an update. "Nobody has claimed that their country is more resilient than we give them credit for!"

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...