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How Egypt pulled its Internet plug

Flipped 'kill switch' by withdrawing border gateway protocol (BGP) routing information, say experts

January 28, 2011 06:30 PM ET

Computerworld - To sever its link with the outside digital world, Egypt "raised the drawbridge" in mere minutes by forcing the country's providers to make simple changes to their routers, experts said on Friday.

"The major Egyptian networks stopped announcing what networks they represented to the rest of the world," said Andree Toonk, the founder and lead developer of the open-source BGPmon, a tool for monitoring BGP, or "border gateway protocol," the protocol at the core of the Internet's routing mechanism.

The process likely took only minutes, and required simple changes to the country's core router configuration files, Toonk said. Earlier Friday, Toonk noted that more than 90% of Egypt's networks were unreachable because they had withdrawn their routing announcements.

Routers communicate with each other using BGP to establish pathways for digital traffic. By refusing to tell other networks how to reach their IP addresses, Egyptian Internet service providers (ISPs) effectively cut off all communication with the Web.

"You could call it a 'kill switch,'" Toonk said.

Beginning Thursday and accelerating Friday, Egyptian networks began disappearing to observers outside the country. Although early reports said it wasn't clear how the disconnect had been done, Toonk and others said today it was certainly by refusing to release BGP information to upstream providers and other networks on the Internet.

Without BGP information provided by Egyptian networks, the rest of the world has no way to connect with the country's ISPs or its Web sites. Nor do its citizens have a way to reach sites or services beyond its boundaries.

The Egyptian government apparently ordered the country's providers to sever their connections. Vodafone, for example, has acknowledged that it complied with a government order to suspend its mobile services. Vodafone is also one of Egypt's largest ISPs.

"The Egyptian government has instructed the ISPs, whether state owned or state licensed, to withdraw their BGP announcements that tell other routers how to reach those ISPs," said Rodney Joffe, senior technologist with Neustar, a DNS (domain name system) service provider.

"Within a few seconds or at most a couple of minutes, traffic could no longer flow [to the Egyptian ISPs]," Joffe said. "For most of the ISPs inside Egypt, there's no longer a path that tells other networks how to reach them."

BGP is not only one of the backbone technologies of the Internet, but also provide its flexibility and strength, Joffe said.

"Using BGP, your networks tells its directly-connected providers that, 'I know the way to these IP addresses, and can get you there in one hop,'" Joffe explained. "Those providers are connected to other networks as well, and begin to tell the world the way to you."



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