'Ratbag' engineers make NBN kill switch unlikely: ISOC

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'Ratbag' engineers make NBN kill switch unlikely: ISOC

A hundred and twenty-two points of presence keep Australia online.

Australian network engineers would likely protect the country’s internet connections from political control, the Internet Society of Australia (ISOC-AU) heard last night.

Discussing the severance of connections to Egypt in January and Libya last month, ISOC-AU vice president Narelle Clarke described various methods of taking a country offline.

She speculated that phone calls from Egyptian officials likely prompted local ISPs to turn off their routers, effectively taking the country offline for five-and-a-half days.

The Libyan Government appeared to have employed a different method to take Libya offline at around 3am Australian Eastern Standard time on 4 March.

Libya Telecom & Technology – run by the son of Libyan president Muammar al-Gaddafi – provided the country with most internet and telecommunications services.

According to Clarke, it was likely that officials reconfigured Libya’s network topology during a shorter internet blackout in February so the Government could later make bandwidth unavailable.

Australia too would have a single, large, fibre operator upon completion of the $43 billion, Government-built National Broadband Network.

But Clarke brushed off the possibility of a coordinated, Government-imposed internet blackout at a public ISOC-AU meeting at Google’s Sydney headquarters on Monday evening.

Instead, she expected the NBN to improve the resilience of Australian connections with an expected 122 points of presence and greater redundancy.

“One organisation will be controlling access to end users and that leaves us with an interesting concept,” she noted.

“[But] I’m quite optimistic that our internet wouldn’t be turned off just like that … They’d have to go to 122 locations to turn it all off.

“I don’t believe the internet engineers in Australia would turn the internet off if they were told to,” she said, fondly describing a ‘ratbag’ culture of “getting around” hurdles.

Meeting attendees were less optimistic, raising concerns that data centres and communications infrastructure were particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Australia currently had two international fibre paths off its west coast, and four off its east – points that could also be exploited to sever the country’s connections with the rest of the world.

“If I was a terrorist, I assume you’d bomb them or something,” Clarke speculated. “Being an engineer, I’d unplug them.”

Clarke also acknowledged that engineers may behave differently under duress, noting that Egypt’s former ICT Minister Tarek Kamel was a former ISOC board member.

“The folk that knew him believe that he wouldn’t have done it [severed Egyptian internet connections] without a gun to his head,” she said.

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