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Aug 20, 2020

Amid major network disruptions, 1.76M Psiphon users in Belarus

The Psiphon network supported a peak 1.76 million daily active users during significant network interference that started August 9th, a figure that represents nearly 1 in every 3 internet users.

A large-scale disruption to international internet access was observed in Belarus, beginning during the contested presidential election on August 9th. Widespread filtering was reported across all Belarusian networks, affecting popular messaging apps including Telegram, Viber, and WhatsApp; social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube; major app markets including Google Play and the App Store; email providers Gmail, Mail.ru, and Yandex; maps, banking, online media, and many other services. Rolling blackouts of the mobile networks also occurred nightly between 6PM and 6AM. The majority of VPNs were reportedly blocked as a result of generalized SSL/TLS filtering. Tor direct connections were disrupted by the increased network change, while Tor bridge users reached a peak 8,000 per day during the shutdown period. Network outages were tracked by RIPE Labs, Oracle Internet Intelligence, IODA, and other network monitors.

 Traceroute completions on main mobile operator MTS Belarus (AS25106) showed clear outages through 60280 and 6697 (source: Oracle)
 

As a backdrop to the network disruptions, Belarus had entered its largest mass demonstrations in history.


Journalists reported difficulty freely accessing and reporting information from the country, and began recommending Psiphon. Belarusian Internet users widely reported that Psiphon was one of the only tools able to circumvent the filtering. Even with the attempted blocking of the app stores and Psiphon sites, users acquired the software via alternate distribution channels, such as email autoresponders, mirrors, and web proxies. Additionally, Belarusian users distributed copies of Psiphon binaries via Telegram channels, hosted URLs, and even offline on USB drives. Use of the Psiphon network surged to a peak 1.76 million daily active users; given a population of 9.5 million and internet penetration rate of 60%, a figure that represents 30% of internet users in Belarus. Total bandwidth transferred from Belarus via Psiphon between Aug 9-17 exceeded 2 Petabytes. Circumvention tools proved a vital infrastructure to freely access information, as well as basic communications and services.

 

Internet users, researchers, and international observers were able to utilize the Psiphon Data Engine metrics portal (available at psix.ca) to monitor blocking, network performance, and corresponding circumvention usage. Some noted during the shutdown period, the volume of Psiphon use in Belarus had surpassed even that of Iran.


From the Psiphon Data Engine (PDE) public dashboard (https://psix.ca/)
 
Network observers such as the Internet Protection Society and others detected that deep packet inspection (DPI) technology was being used to block SSL traffic at scale. NetBlocks also noted keyword filtering appeared to target at least 10,000 URLs. Prague-based Qrator Labs saw the concurrent outage of 80% of IPv6 prefixes within Belarus, and inferred that filtering of downstream autonomous systems (AS) was taking place at the level of two upstream ASes that dominate international transit, AS6697 and AS60280. Official releases by the National Center for Response to Computer Incidents, the National Traffic Exchange Center, and Beltelecom stated the disruptions were the result of external cyberattacks and equipment failures. 

Psiphon network performance and session quality remained at or above the regional average over the days of the shutdown. While the generalized disruption of SSL at the transport layer disrupted the core functionality of most VPNs, Psiphon uses a multiprotocol structure and obfuscation techniques which provide greater resilience to protocol-based blocking. This allows Psiphon traffic to adapt dynamically to such radical shifts in the network environment, and sustain quality of service in even the harshest conditions.

Bytes per hour, Belarus. A peak 55 Terabytes / h were transferred via the Psiphon network.

A key observation by Qrator Labs is the high level of centralization of control over Belarusian networks. DPI equipment installed at the point of international gateways allows the upstream operators to disconnect or pass filtering rules to downstream ISPs. Researchers documented a similar network topology in Iranian ASes last year. In November 2019, Iran executed an extensive disconnection of international internet connectivity that lasted for 10 days.

Indeed, the current generation of DPI filtering technologies can be leveraged at various forms of encrypted internet traffic, increasingly deployed at national scale and at capacities approaching 1TBit/s. In these circumstances, resilient circumvention infrastructures such as Psiphon remain crucial to the free exchange of information.