The internet is back in Belarus, according to reports, but the outage sheds light on what kind of technologies might help ordinary citizens get around such blackouts in future.
The internet was down nationwide for almost three days this week during protests following a controversial presidential election that resulted in an apparent landslide for President Alexander Lukashenko.
The internet returned on Wednesday. But before that happened, Belarusians figured out ways to get around the blockade via services such as virtual private networks (VPN) and proxies. CoinDesk spoke to experts about the limited options citizens have for staying online during internet shutdowns.
Mikhail Klimarev, an IT expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes the outage was an attempt by Belarus authorities to control communications via deep packet inspection (DPI) filtering, which created a bottleneck in internet traffic. In other words, the internet wasn’t completely shut down, it was impossibly slow.
People in Belarus were able to use VPN and proxy software, which help data get around DPI filters. With these tools, internet traffic mimics auxiliary data, which the DPI software ignores, Klimarev said.
However, if a VPN has an open-source code, filtering software can learn to stop and filter it as well. Such VPNs were successfully blocked in Belarus during the shutdown, he added.
Read more: VPN Usage Surges as Belarus Remains Offline
If a government decides to pull the plug and leave the country with no internet, there is not much residents can do, Klimarev said. You could, of course, leave the country, he said, but a less-radical option is to move to a region near the border and connect to foreign internet providers.
“I know that one large IT company in Belarus moved to a hotel near the Lithuania border and pulled the internet cable from across the border. About one hundred people relocated to work from there,” Klimarev said.
Other solutions might include using a SIM card from a foreign cell phone service provider or a dial-up connection between computers, Moscow-based cybersecurity expert Alexey Lukatsky told CoinDesk. However, the government can still cut any channel it has under its control.
“If the government has internet connection under its control in the country and uses DPI filtering, 99% of the population has zero chance in the case of an outage,” he explained.
Satellite out of reach
If moving abroad is not an option, there are other possible solutions. Satellite internet, for instance, but that is extremely expensive, Klimarev says, with the hardware alone costing tens of thousands of dollars plus about $1,000 each month for an internet connection at a decent speed.
However, even satellite internet might get blocked by a national government, said Ilya Kharlamov, a former engineer at Russia’s Khrunichev Space Center. He posted a tweet storm on Thursday explaining that satellite internet is delivered via radio waves, which are normally under government control. This means satellites are not a realistic option for countries like Belarus and Russia, Kharlamov wrote.
For example, if Elon Musk’s Starlink wanted to broadcast the internet from its satellites to Russia, it would need Russian government permission. Another satellite internet company, OneWeb, did not succeed in getting this permission last year.
“Technically, it’s possible to broadcast censorship-free internet to another country, but legally it’s subject to the national laws and regulated on the U.N. level,” Kharlamov wrote, explaining that if a company violates national laws regarding the radio waves usage, the country can complain to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency, and even shoot the satellites down when they fly above the country’s territory.
This is true for any country that’s a U.N. member., Kharlamov told CoinDesk, and this means that without getting permission first, the satellites will have to turn off their transmitters while flying above the country that did not allow its service.
“This is what’s happening above North Korea,” he said, adding: “Right now, 500 Starlink satellites are flying above us already, but they stay silent and only broadcast above the U.S.”
Mesh networks in the works
The blockchain world loves the concept of mesh networks, which rely on multiple mobile devices. Messages bounce from one device to another until they get the message through. In practice, however, it’s extremely difficult to build such a network with a really large number of nodes, Klimarev said.
What’s more, as the number of nodes increase, it’s getting harder to compute the route that a message needs to travel to hit the desired receiver.
“And if those nodes are moving, the amount of computational power needed to find the right route increases immensely. This is why this method (mesh networks) is not considered reliable,” Klimarev said.
There is, however, ongoing experimentation around static mesh networks where the communicating devices don’t move together with their owners. The limit of such networks is 3,000 nodes, Klimarev said, but they might work for cases when there is no particular receiver, but the information is just broadcast around, like for media publications to keep informing their readers in the situation of an outage.
Klimarev is currently working with one such service, NewNode, a project from the same team of developers that created FireChat – a Bluetooth-based messenger designed for use in a crowd.
NewNode is designed to transfer data using the distributed hash table (DHT) – the same technology used in torrents, where information is split into parts and hashed.
Using such software devices would connect utilizing any connection protocols available to them. In the absence of cellular networks, they can use Wi-Fi beacons, signal their presence to nearby devices and then exchange information on what bits of data each one has stored.
However, “nobody has tested these technologies in combat conditions yet,” Klimarev said.
Reasons for outage
During the three-day outage from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11, people in Belarus couldn’t read news on media websites, use social networks (except Telegram, which worked intermittently) or call their families. Belarus authorities claimed the communications infrastructure failed due to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
Klimarev doubts the internet went down because of a DDos attack. “I got data from internet providers in Belarus, and it doesn’t show the uptick in traffic as it would be during a DDoS attack,” Klimarev told Coindesk. “On the charts, we can see there was a limit at the certain speed, and it won’t go higher than that level.”
“Our hypothesis is that someone manually plugged all cables into one central server, which might have been running DPI [deep packet inspection] software,” Klimarev said. DPI software allows for close surveillance of data sent over the internet. That central channel, in turn, was not enough to let all traffic through at the normal speed, so the internet went down.
Analytics company NetBlocks also wrote that DPI filtering could be the reason for the outage. Alexey Lukatsky believes it’s still unclear if the authorities in Belarus were just deliberately blocking particular websites and services or the reason was different.
Klimarev also does not believe the Belarus government would intentionally cut off the entire country from the internet because doing so would hurt the vital infrastructure that the government uses (the DPI filtering technically allowed some traffic through).
“The banking system would grind to a halt, even some phone calls would be impossible, because they all are now going through the internet,” Klimarev said.
Even companies delivering food to grocery stores need the internet to use GPS navigation tools, so a total shutdown would eventually lead to problems with food supply in the cities, he added.
On Thursday, over 500 CEOs of Belarus’ IT companies, some of which are now Silicon Valley success stories, signed a letter to the country’s leadership, demanding it stop the violence against protesters, free political prisoners, conduct fair elections and provide free access to information to the people of Belarus, Dev.by wrote.
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