After soaring energy prices and public outrage at the government erupted in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, last month, the country’s officials took an extreme move to quiet the unrest: they shut the internet.
They attempted to restrict access to select news websites, social networking sites, and messaging services at first. Then, when activists circumvented such restrictions by using software that concealed their whereabouts, the government shut down almost all internet access in the nation.
The changes exacerbated an already severe situation by creating more uncertainty. Following the failure of payment applications and point-of-sale equipment used to swipe debit cards, long lineups developed at automated teller machines as Kazakhs scrambled to get cash. Families were unable to interact with their relatives. Taxi drivers who rely on ride-hailing applications have said that they have ceased driving since they have been unable to connect with customers.
As Darkhan Sharipov, 32, an accountant who was a participant in the demonstrations, said, “It was hard to converse.” Because of a lack of knowledge, confusion and misinformation were exacerbated.
It is possible that the events unfolding in Kazakhstan may serve as a foreshadowing of what may take place in Ukraine, where the Russian military may attack the internet as one of the first targets in a future battle. Russian authorities have warned that cyberattacks might be part of any Russian involvement, which has prompted warnings from Ukrainian and Western officials.
Denial-of-service attacks, in which a large quantity of traffic overwhelms a network, were blamed by the Ukrainian government this week for momentarily knocking the country’s financial institutions, defence ministry, and armed forces websites down. Ukrainian authorities said that the assaults were the greatest in the country’s history and that they “included signs of foreign intelligence agencies.”
There were internet service failures on several mobile networks in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border on Thursday, according to reports. In a statement issued on Friday, Western authorities said that they suspected Russia was responsible for the cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks that took place earlier this week.
In Yemen, for example, Saudi-led troops attacked the country’s phone and internet infrastructure during the country’s civil conflict, according to the organisation Access Now. In reaction to demonstrations, Sudan’s government cut down the internet for almost a month in November, according to Reuters. Also in November, the government of Burkina Faso forced telecom providers to switch down mobile internet networks for more than a week, claiming worries about national security.
Max Tulyev, the proprietor of NetAssist, a small internet service provider in Ukraine, said that his organisation had prepared preparations for the upcoming attack. In order to maintain service during a crisis, NetAssist has created interconnections with other internet network operators and attempted to route connections past popular sites that may be tempting military targets, according to the company’s CEO. The company has also invested in the establishment of a backup network centre and the acquisition of satellite phones to ensure that staff can communicate in the event of a network outage.
The events that occurred in Kazakhstan last month demonstrate how a disruption in the internet may intensify an already chaotic situation. The technological foundations of the shutdown can be traced back to at least 2015, when the government attempted to follow in the footsteps of its neighbours China and Russia, both of which have practised internet restriction for years. Those governments have devised means of eavesdropping on communications and assembled legions of hackers and trolls that may be used to attack opponents.
During rallies against opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year, Russia delayed Twitter service, a practise that has lasted to this day. China has established an arm of the police to apprehend people who express themselves online, and it has enlisted the help of thousands of volunteers to write favourable remarks in support of official objectives.
According to civil society organisations and activists, the Kazakh authorities attempted to build comparable technological tools for monitoring and censorship without cutting the critical links that are required for the country’s economy to run.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev implemented a digital scorched-earth strategy, similar to the one used in Myanmar last year, in order to prevent demonstrators from interacting and exchanging information. Soldiers seized control of data centres operated by the country’s telecommunications corporations after the military conducted a coup in Myanmar.
The internet shutdowns in Kazakhstan started around January 2 and continued until January 10 of this year. According to Arsen Aubakirov, a digital rights specialist in Kazakhstan, at initially, they were restricted to certain messages and focused at places where demonstrations were taking place, he claimed.
While activists found ways to get around the restrictions, the lack of internet access meant that many demonstrators were unaware when the government imposed new curfews, which resulted in violent clashes with police, according to Mr. Sharipov, who was detained by the authorities for his participation in the protests. The marchers were branded “terrorists” and “drug addicts” by state-run media while the internet was down.