undersea communications internet cable

Internet infrastructure in developing countries highly vulnerable to attack

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The infrastructure that provides internet to around a quarter of the world’s users is more vulnerable to attack than previously thought, researchers have said.

A sweeping, large-scale study was conducted by computer scientists at the University of California San Diego, who surveyed 75 countries.

“We wanted to study the topology of the Internet to find weak links that, if compromised, would expose an entire nation’s traffic,” said Alexander Gamero-Garrido, the paper’s first author.

The study finds that a wider array of internet providers reduces the risk that any one attack would have a significantly disruptive impact upon a country’s internet infrastructure.

It cites the US as an example where a large number of firms compete to provide services for a large number of users. These networks are directly connected to one another and exchange content in a process known as direct peering. All the providers can also plug directly into the world’s internet infrastructure.

“But a large portion of the Internet doesn’t function with peering agreements for network connectivity,” Gamero-Garrido said.

In other nations, many of them still developing countries, most users rely on a handful of providers for internet access, with just one typically serving an overwhelming majority of users. Those providers also rely on a limited number of companies called transit autonomous systems to get access to the global internet and traffic from other countries. Researchers found these transit autonomous system providers are often state owned.

This makes countries with this type of infrastructure particularly vulnerable to attacks and other outages because only a small number of systems need to fair for their internet access to be crippled.

The researchers cited Cuba and Sierra Leone as particularly bad examples because they have just one transit autonomous system that serves all users.

By contrast, Bangladesh went from only two to over 30 system providers, after the government opened that sector of the economy to private enterprise.

“This underlines the importance of government regulation when it comes to the number of internet providers and transit autonomous systems available in a country,” the study said, adding that many operators of submarine internet cables “are state-owned rather than privately operated.”

The researchers relied on Border Gateway Protocol data, which tracks exchanges of routing and reachability information among autonomous systems on the internet. They now plan to look at how critical facilities, such as hospitals, are connected to the internet and how vulnerable they are.

Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory recently unveiled a new technique that turns undersea power and telecom cables into environmental sensors could improve the monitoring of the earth in remote locations.

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