State authorities in Syria turned off the nation's Internet traffic at 12:30 p.m. Damascus time Thursday, kicked all commercial aircraft out of Syrian airspace, and crippled the country's cell phone infrastructure. Save for a handful of heavily monitored land and sea crossings, intermittent domestic mobile phone access (no international calls), and the wiretapped landline network, Syria is cut off from the outside world. This means one thing: Hackers and Internet activists are creating ingenious solutions to a communications crackdown.
Earlier today, reports surfaced that 92% of Syrian networks were suddenly disconnected from the Internet. Shortly after our own version of that report, the other 8% of Syrian networks went offline, too. This was followed by the nation's cell phone networks being turned off and commercial air traffic being banned from Syrian airspace. Charts provided by Cloudflare and Akamai graphically illustrate the shutoff:
[Image: Courtesy Cloudflare]
[Image: Courtesy Akamai]
Syria's Internet shutoff is unprecedented in world history. Although Egypt shut off the bulk of their Internet in 2011 in a last-ditch attempt to save the Mubarak regime, essential infrastructure such as the stock exchange and government networks were still connected to the outside world. By contrast, Syria has cut everyone—elite and commoners—off from conventional Internet access within the span of minutes. The only exception are those with expensive satellite modems. (UPDATE: And now American web hosting firms have shut down official Syrian websites after a human rights organization warned them they were in breach of U.S. sanctions on the country. Citizen Lab, a research group based in Toronto, identified three sites belonging to the Syrian authorities being hosted by firms in Texas, Florida, and Denver.)
Telecomix, an informal collective of Internet freedom activists working worldwide, quickly publicly issued a series of dial-up log-ins for Syrian Internet users, with the caveat that they are likely being monitored by Syrian government authorities:
+46850009990 +492317299993 +4953160941030, User:telecomix, Password:telecomix OR: +33172890150, User:toto, Password:toto
A Syrian activist page on Facebook, Syrian Digital Reports, has been keeping track of the ongoing Syrian communications blackout. According to Syrian Digital Reports, intermittent landline access has been restored to several towns and localities within the country, but Internet and mobile access is still impossible.
For their part, the Syrian government claims rebels disconnected the country from the Internet. The Syrian government's claim is almost impossible; Cloudflare's Matthew Prince wrote in a blog post that four undersea cables had to be cut simultaneously in order to sever the entire country from the Internet, and that seems unlikely.
The Syrian government's communications blackout coincides with an offensive by the Free Syrian Army centered on capturing Damascus Airport. Heavy fighting is occurring at press time in the suburbs of Damascus and in Aleppo as well.
With mobile phones and landlines shut down, Syrian rebels will have to use unorthodox methods to connect with the outside world. Satellite modems are currently the only easy way for Syrians to connect outside the country's border without physically crossing into neighboring lands. Web developer Drew Hornbein, who was on the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly Internet committee, told Fast Company that small, informal, temporary networks could be set up for activists during the blackout using packet radio or Wi-Fi. However, if the Internet blackout lasts for an extended period of time, other methods could be used.
At the height of Occupy Wall Street's encampment in Zuccotti Park in 2011, an organization called the Free Network Foundation provided the protesters with secure communications towers whose secure VPNs could either connect to the Internet or function as autonomous, private networks. Technology similar to the Free Network Foundation's Towers could create an alternative communications infrastructure for Syrian activists.
In the meantime, the U.S. government has disclosed additional information about semi-secret logistics assistance being given to Syrian activists. At a press conference in Washington earlier today, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland went into detail about “2000 communications kits” that were sent to the Syrian opposition that included computers, phones, and cameras. “They are all designed to be independent from and able to circumvent the Syrian domestic network precisely for the reason of keeping them safe, keeping them secure from regime tampering, regime listening, regime interruption,” Nuland said.
Update: Early this morning U.S. time, several sites operated by the Syrian government on American servers were shut down after their hosts were informed that housing the websites violated sanctions. Anonymous has also announced that they will take any Syrian websites hosted on foreign servers offline.
[Image: Flickr user DoumaRevolution]