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How did Egyptian leaders switch off the Internet?

The mobilising power of the Internet was one of the Egyptian opposition’s most potent weapons.

world Updated: Feb 16, 2011 23:39 IST

The mobilising power of the Internet was one of the Egyptian opposition’s most potent weapons.

But lost in the swirl of revolution was the government’s counterattack, — in a span of minutes just after midnight on January 28, a technologically advanced, densely wired country with more than 20 million people online was essentially severed from the Internet.

The blackout was lifted after just five days, and it did not save President Hosni Mubarak. But it has mesmerized the worldwide technical community and raised concerns that other autocratic governments may also possess what is essentially a kill switch for the Internet.

Now, Egyptian engineers are beginning to understand what, in effect, hit them. The evidence indicates that the government exploited a devastating combination of vulnerabilities in the infrastructure.

For all the Internet’s vaunted connectivity, the Egyptian government commanded powerful instruments of control: it owns the pipelines that carry information across the country and out into the world.

The attack relied on a double knockout, the engineers say. As in many authoritarian countries, Egypt’s Internet must connect to the outside world through a tiny number of international portals that are in the grip of the government. In a lightning strike, technicians first cut off nearly all international traffic through those portals.

The government’s attack left Egypt not only cut off from the outside world, but also left its internal systems in a sort of comatose state.