The Russian government will build an “independent internet” for use by itself, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa — the so-called BRICS nations — “in the event of global internet malfunctions,” the Russian news site RT reported on Tuesday. More precisely, Moscow intends to create an alternative to the global Domain Name System, or DNS, the directory that helps the browser on your computer or smartphone connect to the website server or other computer that you’re trying to reach. The Russians cited national security concerns, but the real reason may have more to do with Moscow’s own plans for offensive cyber operations.
According to RT, the Russian Security Council discussed the idea during its October meeting, saying that “the increased capabilities of western nations to conduct offensive operations in the informational space as well as the increased readiness to exercise these capabilities pose a serious threat to Russia’s security.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has set a date of August 1, 2018, to complete the alternative DNS.
Why are they doing it? Russia, along with China, has long pushed for national governments to assert more control over the DNS and net governance in general, via the UN International Telecommunication Union, or ITU. Then, as now, the Russian and Chinese arguments were rooted in national security. But were DNS to be turned over to the ITU, dictatorships would be able to much better monitor dissidents, stifle dissent, and control the information environment in their countries. For example, Western tech companies could be forced to keep data and servers physically within those countries, and thus become entangled in vast citizen-monitoring programs.
In 2014, the U.S. cleverly announced it would give control of the DNS database to a non-governmental international body of stakeholders, a process to be run by the California-based Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.
“Now, when China stands up and says, ‘We want a seat at the table of internet governance,’ the U.S. can say, ‘No. The internet should be stateless.’ They’re in a much stronger position to make that argument today than they were before,” Matthew Prince, co-founder of the company Cloudflare, told Defense One at the time.
In a statement Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov framed Russia’s desire for an alternative DNS as essential to “protecting it from possible external influence.”
“We all know who the chief administrator of the global internet is. And due to its volatility, we have to think about how to ensure our national security,” Peskov said.
Russia may have another reason to build its own alternative to DNS: deterrence by denial. If you’ve got a backup internet running that connects you to key nation-state trading partners, you can hack your opponent at less risk of disrupting your own state.
“There is a deep irony in Russia citing the increased capabilities of Western nations doing attacks in the informational space. It is like the fake social media account of the pot calling the kettle fake,” said technologist Peter Singer.
The move follows Russia’s 2016 launch of its own segregated military internet for top-secret communication, called the Closed Data Transfer Segment, modeled slightly after the U.S. Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, or JWICS.
“Russia has been increasing spending on both IT software and hardware for its military, creating domestic microchips, smart phones, notebooks and now closed Internet for the Armed Forces. These efforts were facilitated by the government and [Ministry of Defense] eager to wean themselves off the dependence on high-tech imports,” said Sam Bendett, an associate research analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses’ Russia Studies Program and a fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.