Understanding Russia’s “Sovereign Internet”: What Happens If Russia Isolates Itself from the Global Internet?
Click here for Flashpoint’s coverage of the role of intelligence in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Russia moves to control the information narrative
The Russian government ordered state-owned portals to connect to its state-controlled domain name system servers by March 11—and, to switch to Russian hosting providers and localize elements that may not in the future run on the websites. In reaction to sanctions against Russian banks by the US, the EU, and the UK—as well as (as of this publishing, unheeded) calls to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to disconnect Russian top-level domains—authorities also instructed Russian financial institutions and other companies to replace security certificates that have been or will be withdrawn from them, with Russian certificates.
This is the latest in a series of intentional steps to establish firmer control over the Russian internet, following its invasion of Ukraine. It also includes the blocking of access to several social media platforms and independent news sites in order to censor information about the war from reaching Russian citizens.
Russia’s strategic motivation: Protection from cyber attackers
According to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernenko these steps have been taken to protect Russia from cyber attacks. This is a plausible explanation given the fact that a vast majority of threat groups have sided with Ukraine during this war. Well known groups, such as Anonymous and AgainstTheWest, have been actively attacking and breaching Russian networks for weeks.
However, the steps prompted observers and Russian-speaking threat actors alike to speculate that Russia’s “disconnection” from the global internet was imminent. This would happen under a 2019 Law on Sovereign Internet. However, there have been questions about the feasibility and the usefulness of this move. According to Russia’s legislation, disconnecting Russian internet infrastructure from the global internet would be a defensive move, although this leaves a wide room for interpretation. In addition, it is presently unclear whether Russia meets the technical conditions for an effective disconnection.
Below, we examine what this disconnection would mean in practice and what precautions Russian-speaking threat actors—specifically those based out of Russia—have been considering and taking, according to our collections.
Roskomnadzor and the legal basis of the Russian “sovereign internet”
The legal basis for the Russian “sovereign internet” was adopted in April 2019 and went into effect in November 2019. The law tasked Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications authority, to create a national domain name system (DNS). An organization was created to own the databases of the “national domain zone”—the domains .ru, .su and .рф—in the international organizations that distribute network addresses and domain names, such as ICANN and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. The law obliged Russian service providers to connect to the national DNS from January 1, 2021 on, or risk being disconnected by Russia’s external traffic exchange points.
In case of a serious disruption, the law allows Roskomnadzor to force ISPs to route their traffic via special override systems that providers are by law required to install. The systems rely on deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows the authorities to filter and reroute traffic without the active participation of ISPs.
Following the adoption of the law, Russia also started banning VPN providers. The government first required VPN providers to connect to the Federal State Information System (FSIS), which contains a list of blocked websites. VPN providers that refused to do so were banned in the country. As of late 2021, Russia banned 15 VPN providers. In December 2021 Russia successfully blocked access to the Tor browser.
Notably, some major international payment service providers are not allowing Russians to purchase goods and services from companies based outside of Russia. This is making the purchasing of VPN software tougher.
Examining the consequences of a decoupling
Isolating Russia from global internet infrastructure is possible either by deactivating cross-border internet exchange points or by interfering with the transmission of data packets. Russia’s legislation proposes to do both.
The existing capability, DPI, has been proven in several countries and in Russia itself. Further tightening of the blacklists that block content and senders is well within Russia’s capabilities. Blocking entire countries, particularly Western ones like the US and the Netherlands, would result in major disruptions due to their status as popular internet hosting destinations. However, this could be adjusted and the impact could be blunted if regulators are more surgical with their implementation. This approach would not accomplish a full decoupling, and may fall short of national security goals.
The most ambitious part of the legislation is the creation of a Russian domain name system: essentially an effort to establish a Russian fork of the root DNS. This in practice would mean that the Internet’s phonebook, connecting domain names to IP addresses, would look different in Russia than elsewhere. This in turn would allow the regulator to manipulate user requests and redirect users to the wrong website or simply block their access to specific sites. Currently, over 1500 instances of the 13 root servers accomplish this in a distributed, redundant, and open fashion. The proposed Russian system would see ISPs navigate to a separate, government-controlled chokepoint, thereby risking severe disruptions to Internet communication.
This would have several significant repercussions:
- Websites from outside Russia will almost certainly become unreachable unless a Russian-only mirror was already available. All non-Russian traffic will suddenly cease as their connections can no longer resolve, and anything not maintained by an internal firm or branch of a foreign firm will gradually become obsolete as updates to operating systems, devices, and even programming languages and libraries halt. This includes popular sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
- Users inside Russia can expect service degradation, since their traffic would attempt to hit several external internet exchange (IX) points, which would be effectively severed, before finding an internal one that works.
- The measure would specifically hurt developers who rely on open-source code for nearly every task and any firm that relies on any data from servers hosted outside Russia, as well as users, who will suddenly lose access to all of the above.
- It would also, according to the plan, defeat every form of currently available evasion methods such as VPNs, Tor, or other attempts at cloaking traffic’s ultimate destinations, such as domain fronting.
There are significant challenges in this undertaking due to the infrastructure of Russia’s internet. In countries like Iran or China, which have built a disconnected internet infrastructure much earlier than Russia, external IX’s are relatively limited, either by geography or by a lack of development. However, Russia has over 40 IXs. Therefore a “kill-switch” for Internet communication outside Russia can only be accomplished by pointing all of those to a centralized point.
While the government has had nearly three years to accomplish this since the adoption of the law, the scale of the task is enormous and requires immense coordination. Russia claims to have already set up this infrastructure, administered by Roskomnadzor at the Moscow IX where Russian Top-Level Domains are hosted. It remains questionable whether the infrastructure would pass its first real-life test, especially as there are doubts about whether all internet service providers have actually connected to the Russian national domain name system.
In specific regions, Russia has been testing the equipment allowing the decoupling from global internet infrastructure since 2019. It is unclear how successful these tests were, due to the secrecy that surrounded them, although protesters in the North Caucasus region in Ingushetia reported that in 2018 they experienced a mobile internet outage during protests. However, this does not necessarily mean full control. Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan, researchers of the Russian internet, estimated that as of late 2021 the Kremlin was able to control 100 percent of mobile communications and 73 percent of internet traffic, due to innovations in technology since the sovereign internet law was adopted.
Flashpoint analysts assess with moderate confidence that even considering the technical innovations since 2019, there are still doubts on whether or not the system will work as intended. The idea of a fragmented Russian internet that works the same as the global internet is much easier for policymakers to conceptualize than for ISPs, web services, and system administrators to implement. While DPI technology and Russia’s domestic technology firms can make some restrictions possible, claims that the Kremlin can “flip a switch” and isolate their population from the internet are mostly propaganda.
However, it is worth noting that due to the extensive sanctions regime Russian ISPs may find it difficult to pay global internet service providers, which can cause disruptions.
Similarities to China
China’s efforts in censorship are similar, but they have stopped short of more drastic measures like DNS segmentation. China’s “Great Firewall” also currently uses DPI to crack down on objectionable content and defeat some censorship countermeasures. It also has foreign companies engage in “data onshoring”, or requiring them to keep data on their citizens on servers inside China.
While technically different, the goal of a separate internet for Chinese users is virtually the same. What sets the two approaches apart is how China has invested in its own domestic services from firms that have various degrees of party control.
Impact on cybercrime
Flashpoint analysts are aware of threat actors in illicit communities actively discussing potential workarounds in case the authorities actually try to disconnect Russia from the global internet. As Flashpoint reported earlier, initial reactions to the law were mocking the initiative. In general, threat actors were more concerned about the efforts of the Russian security services to deanonymize Tor users (which was revealed in leaks from Sytec, a contractor of the Russian Federal Security Service in 2019).
In recent months, however, threat actors on illicit forums have shown more immediate concern about sanctions against Russia in general and the risk of the Russian authorities trying to disrupt connectivity, especially after reports that the authorities successfully blocked Tor nodes in December 2021. Threat actors continue to be primarily concerned about the loss of privacy and the opportunities that the “Sovereign Internet” law offers for the Russian authorities to extend surveillance over internet traffic. Those working on social media based schemes may be worried about the added difficulty of accessing these services. Flashpoint observed threat actors reporting drop or an expected disruption in automated activity from Russia-based content farms over the past weeks.
Flashpoint analysts observed threat actors suggesting several workarounds of existing and potential future blocks on various forums:
- A content bot on the “SliVap” forum offered a software using “anti-DPI” technology, which would allegedly allow users to bypass existing blocks by not leaving digital fingerprints typical of VPN, Tor and proxy services that DPI technology relies on to block the use of such evasion techniques.
- “Multivpn[.]su”, a VPN service advertised on the YouHack forum claims to be able to bypass DPI technology and prevent ISPs from logging DNS queries.
- Users of the top-tier Exploit forum suggested using a Telegram bot that provides Tor bridges (relays that are not listed in the public Tor directory and are thus theoretically not blocked). Earlier, users suggested using a VPN-Tor-VPN combination to bypass blocks.
Flashpoint analysts assess with moderate confidence that in general, threat actors in Russian-speaking illicit communities are still unconvinced that a full disconnection of Russia’s internet infrastructure from the global network can happen in the near future. Short of a full switch-off of connectivity, this would likely not affect the activity of more sophisticated threat actors to a significant extent, but the activity of less sophisticated threat actors may drop. Threat actors are however already actively looking for solutions to bypass increasing state control over online traffic as well as financial and trade sanctions and the blocking of cryptocurrency accounts linked to illicit activities, all of which have disrupted cybercrime schemes relying on cross-border shipping and financial flows.
One of the circumstances that suggest that a decoupling may be considered is that the Russian government has not been able to fully block the spread of reliable information about the war. It is likely that footage of Russian conscripts captured and killed in Ukraine, which has been spreading primarily on Telegram, played a part in the Russian Ministry of Defense’s admission, on March 9, that conscripts were indeed sent to Ukraine, even though President Putin personally denied this only days earlier. However, since Russian state institutions and business entities themselves rely heavily on Telegram, it is unclear whether the authorities would block the service, even if they have the technical capabilities to do so.
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