The Public Eye with Eric Chabrow

Shuttering the Net in Emergency: Can It be Done?

Shuttering the Net in Emergency: Can It be Done?

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-WVa., would allow the president to declare a cybersecurity emergency and halt Internet traffic to and from government IT systems and the nation's critical IT infrastructure. But the president hasn't sought such powers, and in testimony before a House panel this week, Peter Fonash, acting deputy assistant secretary of cybersecurity communications at the Department of Homeland Security, said shuttering parts of the mostly privately controlled Internet would be impractical, and the cost itself would be prohibitive.

No doubt, as we're seeing in Iran, a government can disrupt the flow of information on the Internet. But shutting it off would prove problematic.

These days, the Internet is so integrated into industry, government -- life itself -- that even in Iran, shutting it down is the political equivalent of going nuclear. 

"It's next to impossible to do that reliably," Daniel Schwalbe, the senior security engineer at the University of Washington in Seattle, tells NPR.

The report provides a good study on how an entity such as a government - or in this case, a university - could disrupt Internet exchanges, "We can put some blocks in; we could block Facebook.com," Schwalbe says. "And, I would say, that in less than a day they would have access to Facebook again because they would figure out a way around that," such as connecting to proxy servers, though roadblocks could erected to maintaining such connections more difficult.

In Iran, the government controls the cables bringing the Internet into the country through a centralized gateway, allowing it to block websites and filter content. In the U.S., private communications companies such as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon control the networks. Flicking that virtual switch, though theoretical, might not be practical.

Besides, even if the attempt is to prevent the bad guys - however you define them -- from doing harm, could result in more damage being done to a nation's economy if traffic ceases flowing over the Internet.

Danny O'Brien, international outreach coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells NPR he doubts that even the Iranian government would want to do that. "It's like closing down an essential utility in order to control your populace," O'Brien says. "And that's not a decision you can take lightly."

Here's how reporter Martin Kaste summed up the story: "These days, the Internet is so integrated into industry, government -- life itself -- that even in Iran, shutting it down is the political equivalent of going nuclear."



About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.




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