Internet connectivity and cellular service in Belarus have been down since Sunday evening, after sporadic outages early that morning and throughout the day. The connectivity blackout, which also includes landline phones, appears to be a government-imposed outage that comes amid widespread protests and increasing social unrest over Belarus' presidential election Sunday.
The ongoing shutdown has further roiled the country of about 9.5 million people, where official election results this morning indicated that five-term president Aleksandr Lukashenko had won a sixth term with about 80 percent of the vote. Around the country, protests against Lukashenko's administration, including criticisms of his foreign policy and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, grew in the days leading up to the election and exploded on Sunday night. The government has responded to the protests by mobilizing police and military forces, particularly in Minsk, the capital. Meanwhile, opposition candidates and protesters say the election was rigged and believe the results to be illegitimate.
On Monday, Lukashenko said in an interview that the internet outages were coming from abroad, and were not the result of a Belarusian government initiative. Belarus' Computer Emergency Response Team, or CERT, in a statement on Sunday blamed large distributed denial-of-service attacks, particularly against the country's State Security Committee and Ministry of Internal Affairs, for causing "problems with equipment." The Belarusian government-owned ISP RUE Beltelecom said in a statement Monday that it is working to resolve the outages and restore service after "multiple cyberattacks of varying intensity." Outside observers have met those claims with skepticism.
"There’s no indication of a DDoS attack. It can’t be ruled out, but there’s no external sign of it that we see," says Alp Toker, director of the nonpartisan connectivity tracking group NetBlocks. After midnight Sunday, NetBlocks observed an outage that went largely unnoticed by the Belarus population, given the hour, but the country's internet infrastructure became increasingly wobbly afterward. "Then just as polls are opening in the morning, there are more disruptions, and those really continue and progress," says Toker. "Then the major outage that NetBlocks detected started right as the polls were closing and is ongoing."
After studying the outage overnight from Monday to Tuesday, NetBlocks says that the blocking strategy being used in Belarus started with so-called deep packet inspection, which allows a censor to filter web traffic and block access to specific sites. That's why outages were intermittent throughout Sunday beginning in the morning. Toker says that the filtering seems similar to that used in Egypt last year. Then on Sunday evening, the government apparently instituted a more comprehensive outage.
"The network layer disruptions were introduced after the platform filters were gradually rolled out," Toker says. "So much was filtered by the time the blackouts started that they were difficult to distinguish and report. It also paves the way for a potential total blackout," that's virtually impossible to circumvent.
The disruption extended even to virtual private networks—a common workaround for internet outages or censorship—most of which remain unreachable. "Belarus hasn’t had a lot of investment in circumvention technologies, because people there haven't needed to," Toker says.
Meanwhile, there are a few anecdotal indications that the outages were planned, and even possibly that the government warned some businesses and institutions ahead of time. A prescient report on Saturday from the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets included an interview with a salesperson who warned journalists attempting to buy SIM cards that the government had indicated widespread connectivity outages might be coming as soon as that night.
As far back as last Tuesday, August 4, a post circulating on Telegram claimed to show a screenshot of an email from a Belarusian bank employee warning customers that digital banking outages might be coming.
"I think everyone understands it is caused by government, but operators do not want to recognize it publicly," Franak Viačorka, a journalist in Minsk, told WIRED. "It's like nobody knows what's happening. No one wants to take responsibility."
The outages come as governments around the world, including in Iran, Ethiopia, and India, have increasingly used internet blackouts as a tool of repression and authoritarian control to try to quash mass protests and unrest. Connectivity outages around elections have also become more common; so far this year, the governments of Burundi, Guinea, Togo, and Venezuela all disrupted social media platforms during their elections or the night before.
"Sadly, the policy of internet shutdowns is gaining popularity around the world," says Lukasz Olejnik, an independent cybersecurity researcher and consultant. "More and more governments either have or want to obtain such a capability, and it's technically possible to architect networks in ways that allow this."
Belarus has a fairly centralized internet infrastructure, making it relatively straightforward to pull the plug if you've laid the groundwork. State-owned companies control both the mobile data network and the country's interconnection points with the international internet. Toker says that the outages appear to be the result of a brute-force blocking strategy at the network layer, rather than a more refined filtering system at the application layer. (Countries like Iraq, Liberia, and Venezuela have blocked specific social media and communication apps—including WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook—during times of unrest without disrupting the broader internet.)
More than 50 human rights organizations have now signed on to an open letter decrying Belarus' internet outages, addressed to three relevant special rapporteurs of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"Belarus publicly owned telecom provider Beltelecom and the National Traffic Exchange Centre argued that it was a DDoS attack," the letter reads. "We, however, interpret the situation as an attempt to isolate the national segment of the World Wide Web."
On Monday afternoon, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the Belarusian election "was not free and fair." He added in a statement that, "We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations."
Reports indicate that there may also have been sporadic mobile internet outages in Minsk on July 19 during a large protest. Toker says the NetBlocks monitoring platform did register some fluctuations that day, but the findings aren't yet conclusive. In the meantime, though, activists in Belarus began circulating tips and guides for getting around government-imposed connectivity disruptions using VPNs, the Tor browser, and other tools.
In spite of ongoing connectivity blackouts, protests escalated in Minsk on Monday night local time. As the journalist Viačorka put it in a tweet, "Connection is getting worse, while the crowds are getting bigger."
Updated August 10, 2020 at 8:45pm ET to include comments from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.Updated August 11, 2020 at 12:30pm ET to included additional analysis from NetBlocks.