An unprecedented cyber attack has knocked Liberia’s internet offline, as hackers targeted the nation’s infrastructure using the same method that shut down hundreds of the world’s most popular websites at the end of last month.
Multiple attacks against Liberia’s rudimentary internet infrastructure have have intermittently taken the country’s websites offline over the course of a week. Although it isn’t clear who was behind either attack, experts said the method used was simple enough to have been launched by a lone actor and that it appeared to have come from the same source.
The attack on Liberia appears to be a “distributed denial of service attack.” This is essentially when thousands of computers infected with malware each try to access a single site–effectively overwhelming the whole system with traffic and taking it down. It’s a fairly common form of attack, but the methods are becoming more and more sophisticated. The fact that an entire country’s Internet infrastructure is coming under attack is also something new. Attackers are interfering with the commerce, communications and free speech of an entire country.
These attacks can significantly reduce an entire country’s economic output.
These shutdowns, or “throttles” as they are known, are becoming more and more common place. They stifle speech, but also hinder commerce. And now, for the first time, we have a clear picture of the precise economic tolls that internet shutdown costs economies around the world.
Sometimes these attacks are external, as appears to be the case in Liberia and last month’s attack on key Internet infrastructure in the USA. But most of the time, it is government itself that is responsible for shutting down or severely slowing down Internet access, often to stifle speech or dissent. A Brookings report last year identified 81 shutdowns between July 2015 and June 2016, in countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and India.
A new report from Deloitte (funded by Facebook) and published by the Global Network Initiative shows that well connected countries stand to lose about 1.9% of their daily GDP for each day all Internet is shut down. For medium-level connectivity country, that loss is about 1% of daily GDP, and for countries with low Internet penetration, like Liberia, the loss is around 0.4% per day.
The report finds that a throttling — that is, a 30% reduction in speed — leads to an estimated impact of 0.09% of daily GDP. A 50% reduction leads to a greater impact of 0.15%.
This ads up to serious money, and can have profound economy-wide effects. In a country like Liberia, which is in the midst of a huge recovery from a civil war in the early 2000s, this one attack could impede its overall economic growth in a not-insignificant way.
The fact that the methods of this attack are the same that were used to take down websites in the United States shows that these attackers are fairly capable of taking down, in whole or part, the Internet of both well-connected, wealthy countries and poor ones alike. But it is the poorer, less connected countries that are less capable of dealing with these threats and, therefore, are more vulnerable to the kinds of economic shocks that they may deliver.