Could the British Government switch off our internet?

Which is why Tim Anker, founder and director of The Colocation Exchange, isn’t too worried by the theoretical posturing of politicians in the west. “My guess is it will be impossible to switch off the internet in the UK, short of the Government storming the cable landing stations and physically disconnecting the dozens of subsea systems that land around the UK, plus satellite capacity, plus any other forms of wireless or mobile,” he said.

Could the British Government switch off our internet?

Security experts agree, although they point out that it’s actually easier than you might expect to flick the switch at the ISP level. It merely requires typing a couple of commands in the border-gate router console to drop all routes to other networks and “the same rule applies to mobile internet, which uses the same routing technologies as wired networks,” said Catalin Cosoi, head of the BitDefender Online Threats Lab.

Even BT does not really know where its network begins and ends

If such a blackout were in place, circumnavigating it would be all but impossible for end users. “If an internet blackout involves total packet drops there would be no way for a user to force their way through the gateway,” added Cosoi. “This is not a classical ‘block by destination’ approach that can be circumvented via proxies or VPN networks, but rather a typical case of discarding all communications to all routes outside of the country or ISP network”. Unless, that is, they have satellite access with a provider outside of the UK that isn’t subject to our emergency restrictions.

The threat from afar

Perhaps the biggest threat to the UK’s internet infrastructure isn’t a Downing Street diktat, but Obama’s state of emergency kill-switch. If that was activated, it could have just as severe an impact on UK connectivity as Cameron throwing the switch himself.

Maitland Hyslop is an advisor on critical information infrastructure to the US Government’s Department of Homeland Security, and a former adviser to the European Network Information and Security Agency. When we asked him who wields the real power and control over UK internet infrastructure, he told us that it’s a “difficult question to answer as even BT does not really know where its network begins and ends”.

“The Government could certainly control a lot of it; but probably not as much as it thinks – and certainly not as much as the Egyptians. The ultimate answer is probably the US Department of Defense,” he said.

So perhaps the real question we should be asking is less whether David Cameron has the power to hit the big red internet off button, and more whether Barack Obama might be minded to use his kill-switch and take the UK offline with it.

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