A woman reacts while waiting for a train trying to leave Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
For many residents of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, who woke up Thursday morning to the dawn of the Russian invasion, their first instinct would have been to call or text members of their family. But a significant part could not. They had no internet access.
That’s according to NetBlocks, a digital advocacy group that tracks internet outages around the world. “NetBlocks network data confirms a significant disruption of internet service in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city,” the group wrote on its website Thursday morning.
According to an attached graph, up to 25% of Internet users were affected in Kharkiv and the surrounding region, which has a population of around 1.8 million.
Internet blackouts now accompany almost every conflict that occurs around the world, but such blackouts usually occur during civil unrest, especially in places where an authoritarian ruler has the power to unilaterally disable Internet access for everyone. a country. This happened in Belarus last year when President Alexander Lukashenko cut off internet access after widespread protests against the controversial election which Lukashenko won in a landslide.
But that’s not the case in Ukraine, because Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t just pull the plug and knock the country offline. However, there are still several things Russia can do to disrupt internet access – like blowing up power grids or attacking internet infrastructure like cellphone towers – as part of its broader disinformation campaign to create confusion and chaos online about what is happening on the ground.
“If Russia is going to shut down Ukraine as a nation, it should go for the providers and it should go for a way to disconnect those other international connections; it should be done either kinetically by attacking the telecommunications infrastructure, or by sabotage or internal connections, or even cyberattacks if it has that capability,” Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, told VICE News.
Toker says it’s still unclear what caused the blackout in Kharkiv on Thursday morning, but the timing of it – occurring at the start of attacks on the city – suggests there was a connection.
“We don’t have a root cause, but we’re looking at possibly the impact of power outages or the kinetic impact of the bombardment, given the timing of the disruptions,” Toker said.
But kinetic attacks on power plants or cell towers are just one way Russia is cutting Ukraine’s internet access, and in the days leading up to Thursday’s invasion there was evidence that Moscow was already testing these techniques.
Last Thursday, for example, there was a major outage in the east of the country, with NetBlocks reporting “a loss of connectivity lasting several hours on the infrastructure used by the Vodafone mobile network, corroborating user reports of ‘a loss of cellular service in Luhansk and Donetsk’. .”
A day later, Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Minister, posted images of a severed internet cable on his Facebook page, commenting: “Tonight there have been deliberate hijackings of the communication lines of Vodafone operator in Luhansk and Donetsk. Regions.”
Then, hours before the physical invasion, Ukrainian financial and government websites were hit by a crippling cyberattack, which the UK and US quickly blamed on Russia. Toker said Thursday morning those attacks had mostly failed and “banks and government sites are now mostly accessible again.”
In a Telegram post this morning, Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Minister Mykhaylo Fedorov said cyberattacks were ongoing, although “everything is stable”, Forbes reported.
But these incidents show just how vulnerable internet infrastructure can be, and fears of a more widespread outage are “legitimate”, Toker said.
“It is legitimate to be concerned about connectivity in times of conflict. There may be attacks from the aggressor. These could take the form of cyberattacks or physical attacks – sabotage of infrastructure – especially bearing in mind that there are sympathizers in Ukraine who might see it as a way to support the Russian advance.
Ukraine has a fairly diverse internet infrastructure, Toker said, with connections to the networks of several neighboring countries, which means there is no single point of vulnerability that Russia could attack to put the net at risk. Ukraine offline.
But a possible weak point is the fact that Russia itself provides internet connectivity to eastern parts of Ukraine, including the occupied territories and Crimea. So, if she really wanted to, she could disconnect a significant number of Ukrainians in a jiffy.
The chances of that happening are slim, Toker said, given the impact such an action would have on Russia’s own citizens.
“There is a double-edged sword here, because if Russia seeks to disconnect parts of Ukraine through Moscow [internet service provider], then it’s going to cut its own people,” Toker said. “And it’s going to affect its own controlled territories more than it will affect central or western Ukraine or Kyiv, just because those areas are also connected to European and Western suppliers.”
In recent days, Russia’s amateurish and botched efforts to spread disinformation about Ukrainian attacks on its troops and positions have been debunked in real time, in part thanks to the presence of journalists and civilians on the front lines who were able to upload verified images and videos of what is happening on the ground.
When Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border, they may seek to keep their movements and positions as secret as possible, and to do so, Russia may seek to target a larger-scale network disruption.
“If military columns start moving towards Kyiv, this could be another point where nationwide telecommunications are threatened, as there is obviously a risk for Russia that user-generated content will reveal key positions. or confidential positions of military installations and movements,” he added. said Toker.
“Then there will be a real incentive to jam, restrict or disconnect connectivity on a larger scale.”
In addition to the threat of bombings and bombings, power grid disruptions, insider threats and cyberattacks emanating from Moscow, it is possible that employees of mobile phone providers and other Internet service providers, such as employees many businesses in Ukraine are not showing up for work in the coming days out of fear for their safety.
Another concern is that subscribers may be cut off if they don’t pay their bills or top up their accounts due to the disruption caused by the invasion. Thursday morning, the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine called on operators “not to disconnect subscribers if there is a lack of funds in their accounts”.
Either way, it now seems more a question of when, rather than if, further internet disruptions will occur in Ukraine in the coming days.
“All of this can contribute to the fog of war,” Toker said. “We believe that the loss of connectivity and services is inevitable to some extent, it remains to be seen whether this will become a connectivity outage, as it would be almost unprecedented Ukraine-wide. But then it happens. a lot of unprecedented things are happening right now.
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