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Why Russia is about to disconnect itself from the internet

NATO and its allies have threatened to retaliate against Russian aggression in cyberspace

by David Gilbert
Feb 11 2019, 3:06pm

The Kremlin is about to disconnect from the internet as part of Russia’s efforts to tests its cyber defenses in the case of retaliation from the West.

The move, set to happen sometime before April, is part of a plan backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to ensure the independence of Russian internet space (Runet) so that it can continue to operate even if links to global servers are severed.

Russia is worried that the West will eventually grow tired of its constant cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns and cut off access to the internet — and it wants to be prepared for when that happens.

Russia “poses a significant cyber influence threat” to the U.S., Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, told Congress last month. Besides disinformation campaigns waged during the 2016 election, Russian state-sponsored hackers have also infiltrated parts of America’s critical national infrastructure.

The new law, known as the Digital Economy National Program, was first introduced in the Russian parliament in December and as well as looking to create a national internet, it is designed to create an internet filtering system akin to China’s Great Firewall.

While Russia’s telecoms and internet providers have broadly welcomed the introduction of the new system, some are worried that the way the test is going to be conducted will cause major disruption for citizens trying to get online, local media outlet RosBiznesKonsalting reported.

Why is Russia disconnecting from the internet?

In the past NATO and its allies have threatened to retaliate against Russian aggression in cyberspace, which includes everything from knocking out power grids in Ukraine to trying to undermine the democratic process in countries around the world through disinformation campaigns.

So far, retaliatory measures have been limited to sanctions against Moscow, but Putin and his lawmakers are clearly worried that at some point Western countries will take more drastic action.

How will it work?

Moscow has charged its internet service providers (ISPs) to upgrade their systems to reroute all internet traffic to exchanges and servers located inside the country and approved or managed by Roskomnazor, Russia's telecom watchdog.

Part of the plan involves Russia building its own version of the Domain Name System (DNS), which acts as the telephone book for the internet.

There are currently 12 organizations who oversee the root servers for DNS, but none of them are based in Russia. But authorities have built a backup of DNS, which they tested in 2014 and again in 2018.

What about censorship?

As part of the test, ISPs have been asked to route Russian internet traffic through government-controlled routing points.

Critics say that this is the first step in the creation of a massive surveillance and censorship system that will allow the Kremlin to filter out any traffic it considers unpalatable.

In recent years Russia has been looking to gain more control over the internet. It now requires telecom companies to store all user data for six months and hang on to metadata for three years.

It is also trying to force companies like Facebook and Google to store data inside the country as it would give the Kremlin more power to compel the companies to hand over data on their users.

Cover: The former KGB headquarters in Moscow is photographed in October 2011. The Russian government has been linked to cyber attacks on Asian, American and European companies for alleged economic gains, according to a report released in January 2014 by CrowdStrike Inc., a U.S. cybersecurity firm. An expert said persons connected to the Soviet KGB are suspected to be involved in cyber crimes. (Kyodo via AP Images)