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Cyberspace: new frontier in conflicts

Internet attacks on Georgia expose a key flaw for more than 100 nations.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2008

SOURCES: New Scientist, AFP


Oakland, Calif.

As Georgian troops retreated to defend their capital from Russian attack, the websites of their government, also under fire, retreated to Google.

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In an Internet first, Georgia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reopened its site on Google's free Blogger network and gave reporters a Gmail address to reach the National Security Council.

The attacks have deluged the websites of the president, various ministries, and news agencies with bogus traffic. The jam not only shut down those sites but also clogged Georgia's Internet access, exposing its reliance on Russian Internet pipelines.

Some in the cybersecurity community say this may be nothing more than grass-roots "hactivism," which usually springs up during international confrontations. Others, however, warn that the attack highlights the leverage some countries have gained over adversaries by laying down fiber-optic cables and providing cheap Internet services.

"The lesson here for Washington is that any modern conflict will include a cyberwarfare component, simply because it's too inexpensive to be passed up," says Bill Woodcock, research director at Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit Internet research institute in San Francisco. "The best [defensive] strategy is always preparedness. We've spent eight years completely ignoring that, while the Chinese and Indian governments have been paying really close attention and investing many tens of billions of dollars."

Georgia's Internet infrastructure has two big weaknesses. First, most of its external connections go through Russia. Second, there's a lack of internal connections called Internet exchange points. So when a Web surfer in Georgia calls up a Georgian Web page, that request routes through another country, which is similar to driving to Mexico to get across town in San Francisco, says Mr. Woodcock, whose organization helps countries build their own Internet exchange points.

"If you look at how the routing is done on the Internet, there are a few major networks that are providing interconnectivity to everyone else," says Dmitri Alperovitch, director of intelligence analysis at Secure Computing Corporation, a data-security firm based in San Jose, Calif.

A problem for 110 nations

By one count, 110 nations are saddled with the problem. Former Soviet states in particular are poorly connected and increasingly reliant on Russia, he says. That's in part due to the legacy of the Soviet period. But now it has more to do with Russia's ability to offer superior Internet service through its investments in infrastructure. The situation is somewhat analogous to the more-widely-noticed reliance that neighbors have on Russia's energy pipelines.