As Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, spiraled into chaos last month over rising energy costs and anger at the government, the country’s leaders took a drastic step to quell protests: They blocked the internet.
First, they tried to ban access to some news sites, social networks and messaging services. Then, as activists bypassed those curbs with software that masked their locations, the authorities shut down almost all connectivity in the country.
The moves added uncertainty to an already dire situation. After payment apps and point-of-sale machines used to swipe debit cards went down, lengthy lines formed at ATMs as Kazakhs rushed to get cash. Families could not communicate with loved ones. Taxi drivers who relied on ride-sharing apps said they stopped driving because they could not connect with passengers.
“It was impossible to communicate,” said Darkhan Sharipov, 32, an accountant who was part of the protests. “The lack of information multiplied the chaos and disinformation.”
The scenes in Kazakhstan offer a preview of what may unfold in Ukraine, where the internet could be one of the first targets of the Russian military in a potential conflict. Ukrainian and Western officials have warned that cyberassaults could be part of any Russian intrusion.
This week, the Ukrainian government said that the websites of two banks, its Ministry of Defense and its armed forces were briefly taken offline by a series of denial-of-service attacks, in which huge amounts of traffic overwhelm a network. The attacks were the largest in the country’s history, Ukrainian officials said, and “bore traces of foreign intelligence services.”
On Thursday, internet service outages were recorded on some mobile networks in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border.
“In the event of a real military conflict, it is the internet infrastructure that will be destroyed in the first place,” said Mikhail Klimarev, a Russia telecommunications expert and the executive director of the Internet Protection Society, a civil society group opposed to internet censorship. “In Kazakhstan, the internet was turned off by order of the authorities,” he said. “In Ukraine, we fear that the internet will be…