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Kill Switch Engaged

Optimize Blog - February 16, 2011 - 0 comments

Recent events in Egypt have been fascinating and depending on your point of view are either good or bad for the stability of the Middle East. Ultimately time will tell of course. However, what really struck a chord with us here at Zeitgeist was the apparent ability for the Egyptian government to effectively find a kill switch for the Internet – a feat replicated in Algeria over the last couple of days.
Egypt is a relatively technically sophisticated country with over 20 million of its population connected and plugged into the internet. This was a significant medium used by the opposition movement to mobilize protestors which ultimately forced the standing down of Hosni Mubarak.
Technicians around the world are rather confused by the ability of the government to shut down the Internet in Egypt between midnight and 1 am on January 28th. Although Telecom Egypt is state owned, the Internet’s legendary robustness and ability to avoid blockages are part of its basic design. The routing of each data packet is handled by a complex web of computers known as routers, so that in principle each data packet might take a different route to its destination. The complete message is then reassembled at the receiving end. So the strength of the Internet is that in theory it has no single point of failure.
However, outside of satellite connectivity most traffic passes through vast centralized exchanges and Egypt’s Internet had to connect to the outside world via just a few international portals that are also controlled by the government. Again, in theory, the domestic Internet should have survived the severing of that external connectivity.
But the cut-off also revealed how dependent Egypt’s internal networks are on systems that exist only outside the country — including e-mail servers, data centers and the domain name servers.
The government’s swift actions left Egypt not only cut off from the outside world, but also with its internal network all but useless. And of course, it had to deal with individual Internet Service Providers who were ordered to shut down, as they are required to do by their licensing agreements if the government so decrees – basically “comply or lose your licence to operate in our country”.
So, as we consider Egypt’s ability to flick the kill switch on the Internet many individuals and businesses within Egypt got some clarity and insight into just how important connectivity is in today’s world. For five days the communications were radically limited and whilst many customers of Egyptian businesses were more than sensitive to the situation, this is potentially a game changer in the way businesses need to structure their communication and data storage and transmission protocols.
In the West it is perhaps unlikely that a government would resort to such draconian measures and turn the Internet off but for terrorists the ability to cause global chaos via such an attack must be attractive. We hope that the people protecting our connectivity and data storage have taken note…

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