When the Internet disappears: blackouts around the globe

Telmex, the largest Internet Service Provider in Mexico fell down by three hours on July 25.

July 25, 2019. Thursday. Afternoon. The largest fixed broadband Internet service provider in Mexico, Telmex, presented a massive failure. Users of his partner company, Telcel, also reported problems in the service.

The failure only affected these two companies, but these two are the largest telecommunications companies in Mexico. Telmex has 9.7 million fixed broadband users, while Telcel operates 75.6 million mobile lines in Mexico. Both companies are subsidiaries of América Móvil, the corporate of Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim.

The company reported to the media that the burning of grasslands in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and San Luis Potosí caused the massive failure, damaging the fiber optic cables. They added that the corresponding investigations would be done to find those responsible for the damage to telecommunications networks.

The total number of users who went offline has not been disclosed. The fault affected several states of the Mexican Republic, including Mexico City, State of Mexico, Nuevo León, Puebla and Jalisco, entities where more than 50% of the population of the country lives. Those who could complain about the failures of the social media service received an automated response. The company’s service lines were not available.

Are damage to telecommunications cables common?

Damage to telecommunications cables is quite common worldwide. Stephan Beckert of TeleGeography Research estimated in 2008 that on average, a submarine cable was damaged once every five days. The decentralized nature of the network intends that users do not notice these failures. As soon as a connection is interrupted, the system automatically searches for an alternative route for the link. Currently, there are more than 56 ships worldwide that are dedicated to repairing submarine cables damaged by stones or anchors. Most users do not notice when these cables are damaged because they are automatically redirected. However, sometimes the damage causes significant failures.

In Mexico, people are used to technology doesn’t work as it should. Mexicans often joke with the phrase “the system fell,” commonly said in self-service establishments when they could not process a card payment for any connection failure. The refrains origins are even older. In 1988, the Secretary of Government Manuel Bartlett (now director of the Federal Electricity Commission) appeared at the media to report that the system that was monitoring the presidential vote count “fell.” When this fail happened, the count showed the presidential candidate of the opposition party in the first place. However, the connection cuts are not exclusive to Mexico.

A massive failure of Internet services worldwide is a good argument for an apocalyptic science fiction story, but also an unlikely scenario. The decentralized feature of the telecommunications network that makes up the Internet allows devices to look for alternative ways to communicate when a connection fails. Despite this, massive Internet outages are always happening worldwide, some caused by authoritarian regimes, others for hilarious reasons.

Mexican politician Manuel Bartlett announced a fail in the computing system of the votes

Can an Internet blackout be provoked by sabotage?

From January 23 to February 4, 2008, the Internet service of the Middle East and India showed disruptions and slowdowns due to damage to the submarine communications cables of the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East. The experts considered that it was an accident, although they never discovered the causes. This misinformation provoked some people to raise their eyebrows and begin to elucidate conspiracy theories about the incident, from suspected terrorist attacks to US military strategies to attack Iran.

An Internet blackout hit Syria in November 2012 while intense clashes were taking place between groups of Islamist rebels and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The antagonist groups blame each other for the incident. Two years later, Edward Snowden commented that the National Security Association was responsible for the massive drop in the service. According to Snowden, the NSA tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate the hardware of Syria’s largest service provider to learn about the population’s Internet usage patterns.

The fear of conscious sabotage against submarine cables is partly based. In December 2017, NATO expressed concern about a more significant presence of Russian submarines in the areas where these cables are placed. However, accidents also happen frequently.

Big fail in the Internet service

In 2011, a 75-year-old Georgian woman left three million inhabitants of Armenia without the Internet, in addition to affecting some users in Georgia and Azerbaijan after damaging the cable responsible for 90% of the country’s Internet connection. The woman damaged the cable while digging to find copper.

In Mexico, the Telmex service presented connection problems in 2018 that harmed the inhabitants of the Yucatan Peninsula, in addition to Puebla, Tabasco, and Veracruz. On that occasion, the company only declared that there were “massive failures” in its service, without specifying the causes. Some experts suggested that these problems could be due to the growth of infrastructure in the country, such as the construction of roads that damage the company’s fiber-optic.

The decentralized feature of the Internet protects itself from most eventualities, but it is not invulnerable. A small failure can cause a big connection problem, especially in regions with poorly developed infrastructure.

Governments can shut down the Internet

Sometimes, governments themselves are responsible for massive failures. The Access Now organization reported that the cuts to the Internet service increased in number, from 75 in 2016 to 196 in 2018, the majority caused by authoritarian regimes.

These cases are more common in countries where there are only one or two internet service providers (ISPs) or when the government is the primary service provider. In this way, it is easier for governments to control the sites that are visited by citizens or even prevent full access to the Internet. However, these censorship measures have their weaknesses, as users can still access the banned pages with a VPN service.

There are multiple documented cases in more than 30 nations around the world in which the government cut or pressured to cut the Internet service. In Latin America, Venezuela is the most cited case. Opponents of Nicolás Maduro accuse the government of knocking down the Internet every time protests are organized against him.

In the early days of 2019, the Internet service failed before announcing the results of the elections and arresting members of the opposition parties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

However, India is the country with the highest government interference on the Internet. In 2019, the police have shut down Internet service 55 times in regions of the country with the excuse of preventing terrorist attacks.

The hackers’ threat: Cyberattacks

Some years ago massive cyberattacks were only part of sci-fi plots, but recently they became a real threat. The DDoS attacks boomed in 2016, causing the most prominent Internet service failure in history on October 21.

Responsible for these massive attacks was Mirai malware, developed by students Paras Jha, Josiah White, and Dalton Norman. The initial intention of these students was to attack Minecraft servers to boost their business of DDoS mitigation tools. This team discovered a way to take advantage of the low-security levels of most devices connected to the Internet of Things and shared it online.

The code of Jha, White and Norman exceeded the expectations of its creators when it was used to attack Dyn, a company of Domain Name Servers (DNS), causing problems in the Internet connection of North America and Europe. Wired described the attack as “the first thermonuclear bomb in the DDoS world.”

A month later, an attacker used a variant of the Mirai botnet against the routers of the German company Deutsche Telekom. The attack left 900,000 Internet users offline, while another variant of the same malware left entire Liberia without the Internet.

These attacks revealed how vulnerable the network could become without adequate security measures.


The economic cost of Internet blackouts

Massive failures in Internet services have raised concerns about the economic costs of Internet outages, regardless of whether they were caused by infrastructure failures, by the decision of the authorities or by cyberattacks.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimated that Egypt lost $ 90M when the government prevented access to the Internet for five days as a measure to avoid the rapid spread of Arab Spring protests. According to the agency’s calculations, if this measure had been extended for a year, the Gross Domestic Product of Egypt would have fallen between 1% and 4%.

The economic impact of the Internet has led the United Nations to issue a resolution to support “the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.” The UNO condemned measures that disrupt Internet access.

The Brookings Institute estimated that the Internet shutdowns cost between July 2015 and June 2016 $ 2.4 billion worldwide. The report called The economic impact of disruptions to Internet connectivity calculated that one-day interruptions in the Internet connection cost countries with high connectivity 1.9% of their daily GDP. For countries with medium connectivity, service interruption costs 1% of their daily GDP.

DDoS attacks interfere with the online operations of companies, resulting in lost sales during the interruption period, in addition to customers. If the attack gains visibility, it can even damage the image of the brand and reduce its future revenue, according to a report published on February 2018 by The Council of Economic Advisers.

On average, a DDoS attack costs businesses $ 2.5M, according to a Neustar report. In the case of Dyn, 8 K domains stopped using their service after the attacks, meaning a 24% loss, according to BitSight data.

These figures highlight the importance for both companies and governments of protecting the infrastructure that allows the Internet to function properly and without interruptions: ensure that there are enough fiber optic cables deployed to mitigate the eventualities that may interrupt the connection of large areas, ensure that Internet service providers are independent companies from governments and take the necessary security measures to prevent infection of the devices and mitigate the effects of DDoS attacks.