South Caucasus Internet Vulnerable to Shut Down
In recent years, internet security has become an issue of increasing concern for governments around the globe, but in the turbulent South Caucasus, local experts say the threats against both the physical internet infrastructure and cyberattacks against governments and organizations are a reality.
The fragility of the South Caucasus internet infrastructure was underlined this March when a 75-year-old Georgian woman allegedly shut off the internet for 90 percent of Armenia as well as large parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan, by accidentally cutting a fiber-optic cable while digging for copper wire.
Network monitors in Western Europe alerted Georgian authorities to the source of the disruption, and the internet was restored five hours later.
Currently, most internet coverage in the three South Caucasus countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, comes from a single fiber optic line that traverses the Black sea into Georgia. From there, the system is neither properly protected, nor properly backed-up said Thomas Van Dam an internet expert who worked with online marketing firm, MatchCraft, in Georgia until 2010.
“There is zero redundancy in the system,” he said. “This is strange because the concept of ’99 percent uptime’ is only possible when you have fully redundant systems.”
Representatives from Georgian Railway Telecom, which owns Georgia’s fiber optic lines, said the company is currently “undergoing reorganization” and were unable to respond to TFT’s questions.
Of the three countries, Armenia’s internet connectivity is the most precarious. Because its borders with both Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed, it is nearly totally dependent upon Georgia, although Iran supplies about 10 percent of Armenia’s internet. Armenian new media specialist Tigran Kocharyan, said that plans to expand Iranian fiber optic lines along the proposed Iran-Armenia railway — due to be completed around 2014 — would greatly alleviate the problem, but for now, Armenian users remain “hostage” to the Georgian infrastructure, he said.
And this problem is much more than an occasional inconvenience, said Armenian information security analyst Samvel Martirosyan. He said that in the case of all-out war with Azerbaijan, each side would try to cut the other’s internet “for sure.” Even if each country stayed online, Martirosyan said, “cyberspace will be one of the main battlefields.”
Just like the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, which has continued partially frozen for the past two decades, a low-level cyberwar has raged unabated between Turkish, Armenian and Azeri hackers, Martirosyan said, and it intensifies around key dates in the calendar year – particularly Armenia’s April 24 Genocide Remembrance Day.
Bloggers and hackers from across the Turkish and South Caucasus blogosphere regularly engage in denial-of-service attacks (DDoS) against one another, which overload servers an can bring down websites, particularly if the attack is coordinated among multiple internet users, Martirosyan said.
During the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, several Georgian government websites — as well as Georgian banks and telecommunication companies — were crippled by cyberattacks, which several experts linked to a constellation of individual internet users, but also the Russian Business Network, a murky group of Russian cybercriminals, which has been linked to a number of internet crimes.
Although efforts have been made to reign in attacks and regulate cyberspace, Turkey and Russia have yet to sign the European Convention on Cybercrime, a treaty harmonizing national laws on a variety of cybercrimes, although 43 other countries have – including all three South Caucasus nations. In a report for Radio Free Europe, Khatuna Mshvidobadze, a senior associate at the Georgian Security Analysis Center, said that by not signing, Moscow has intentionally left the door open for future attacks on Georgia. As she noted in her report, Russia’s 2010 Military Doctrine included provisions for cyberwar, calling for “The prior implementation of measures for information warfare in order to achieve political objectives without the utilization of military forces.”
Kocharyan said that both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments closely observed the cyberbattlefied in Georgia during the 2008 war and have upgraded their security accordingly.
Another scenario that has the region’s bloggers worried is the threat of a shutdown caused by their own governments. As popular revolts spread across the Middle East this spring, several besieged governments cut internet access to the population to prevent protesters from mobilizing via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan host surprisingly large and influential blogosheres, experts say, and Armenia in particular has faced a series of large protests this year as discontent has spread about the lack of political reform in the country.
Kocharyan, however, said he doubts the Armenian government would attempt to shut down the country’s internet in a time of crisis because it maintains large numbers of pro-government bloggers and has a significant presence on the internet itself. And, in any event, Armenians can now use facebook via text messaging and as the protests raged in Cairo earlier this year, Google developed a “Talk-to-Tweet” service, which offered Egyptians the ability to send tweets through audio phone messages. In the event of revolution, war or disaster, this service might too become available to South Caucasus residents, Martirosyan said.
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