Is it Possible to Knock An Entire Country Offline?

How would we live if the Internet went down for a day? For a week? For a month? Things might not go quite that well here in the US but people in other countries have had to deal with situations like this before. Some of the causes are accidental like when the submarine cable that provided Internet services to parts of Africa were cut in 2008 but others are not quite as accidental. Is it possible for one person to knock and entire country offline? Apparently it is and the country of Liberia found this out.

An Incident in Liberia

In 2016 a 28 year old British hacker named Daniel Kaye hacked into a phone company in Liberia called Lonestar, the leading telecom company in the country. He had been hired by a representative of a rival company called Cellcom (since rebranded to Orange) to do as much damage as he could. Kaye created a Mirai botnet to trigger a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on the company’s computer network.

Kaye set up shop in Cyprus and was able to incorporate unsecured devices connected to the Internet of Things into his botnet. These included not just computers but also Chinese-made Dahua cameras used in home security by the hundreds of thousands. So much traffic to Lonestar’s network was generated that not only did their network go down but so did Liberia’s Internet for a few hours. In those few hours Lonestar lost tens of millions of dollars with customers dropping their service unaware that Lonestar was being attacked intentionally.

About Liberia

Liberia is one of the poorest countries in Africa. It is located on the western coast of Africa bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. About 4.7 million people call the country home and English is the predominant language. That is because it was founded as a place for the resettlement of freed blacks from the United States believing that they would have more freedom in Africa then they would in the antebellum US. Among the earliest proponent of the idea were US president James Monroe, for whom the capital of Monrovia is named for.

The country was one of the first independent nations in Africa modeling their government off that of the US. Liberia was one of the founding members of the League of Nations following World War One but has been marred by rampant corruption and crime throughout much of the 20th Century. Two civil wars were fought during that time and the country is still dealing with the aftershocks of them. It’s modern GDP is the third lowest in the world and about 400,000 people are connected to the Internet, or about 8.6% of the population in 2016.

Caught and Sentenced

Kaye also attempted the same thing with the German telecom Deutsche Telekom which brought down the Internet of around one million users in Cologne (Germany’s fourth largest city). He also utilized this traffic from Germany to aid in knocking Lonestar out. In 2017 though he was tracked down in Cyprus and arrested when he returned to the UK carrying the money he receive for the attack on him. Kaye was extradited to Germany and returned to the UK for trial. He is also suspected of utilizing a botnet against some of the largest financial institutions in the UK in 2017.

He was sentenced to two years in prison earlier this year. Several other DDoS for hire websites have also been taken down and clients of those “services” have been warned that they could face criminal prosecution.

Liberia was Vulnerable

When things began to go down Lonestar called in cyber security experts who attempted to fight the botnet but by that point there was little that they could do. So much traffic was being sent that the entire nation’s Internet infrastructure became overwhelmed and went down. Liberia was dependent on one transAtlantic cable and the overwhelming amount of traffic was more than this cable could handle. While knocking out Liberia’s Internet service on a national level was not Kaye’s intention he did it, becoming the first person to knock and entire nation offline.

Protect Yourself and Your Devices

This attack was made possible for two reasons. The first was a vulnerability that was discovered with a device that was not patched. The other was that the users of those devices used the generic username and password of the device. It is important to remember that any device connected to the Internet of Things needs to not have its software kept up to date but also to change the default username and password that comes with it. It may help to prevent your device from being used as part of a botnet targeting a business rival or just an unsuspecting person somewhere else. That person though could be you one day.

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