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Mapped: What Global Cyberwar Looks Like in Real Time

On Monday, Google rolled out three new initiatives to ensure the openness of the Internet and access to the service -- even in the face of government crackdowns on the web.

One of those tools is a proxy plug-in -- creatively titled uProxy -- that uses a peer-to-peer system to create secure Internet connections. By linking a user in, say, China with her trusted friend in the United States, the browser plug-in allows the user in China to access her American friend's Internet via an encrypted connection that should, in theory, allow her to bypass the Great Firewall.

Another tool, Project Shield, promises to protect human rights organizations and NGOs from so-called DDoS attacks, which take down a website by directing a flood of traffic toward it and overwhelming it or rendering it unusable. DDoS attacks have become the preferred method for knocking out a pesky, unwanted site, and while big sites like Google are able to protect themselves from such attacks, independent groups, including media organizations and election monitors, frequently find themselves unable to fight back when targeted. "If you think about all of the organizations around the world that use a website as their modern-day office -- NGOs, businesses, governments -- it's not OK to have this many digital office raids shutting them down," Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, told Time in an interview.

The last project rolled out this week is something called the Digital Attack Map, which is embedded at the top of this post. It's a fascinating, interactive map that monitors DDoS attacks around the world -- an effort Google hopes will raise awareness about the problem. The map, which draws on data collected by the network security firm Arbor Networks, provides a nifty visualization of an issue that's been in the headlines constantly over the last year or so.

The result is the first real visualization of what cyberwar looks like in real time. So what can we learn from the effort? Here are some incidents that jump out in playing around with the map.

The map below provides a snapshot of Aug. 27, when a portion of Chinese .cn domains were knocked offline. Chinese authorities described the hack as the largest cyberattack in the country's history without pointing fingers at any particular party, and below you can see where the attacks originated. Attacks whose origin and destination are both known are depicted as an arc between the two countries, with the data traveling from source to victim. Attacks whose origins are unknown but whose victims are clear are depicted as a downward flow into the victim country. As you can see, the attack that took out the .cn domain came from both the United States and the Netherlands (keep in mind: there are several ways for attackers to obscure their location and make it appear as if attacks are originating in different countries). 

On June 25, the 63rd anniversary of the start of the Korean War, South Korea was struck by a cyberattack by the DarkSeoul gang, which has been linked to North Korea and is believed to work on its behalf. The attack shut down major media and government websites and represented a high-profile flare-up in ongoing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. That attack is visualized on the map below, and what's striking is that a targeted attack in South Korea was able to take down a series of prominent websites while using relatively little bandwidth. Measured by bandwidth, the attack on South Korea was smaller than that day's attacks on the United States by several magnitudes.

Below, the Digital Attack Map visualizes part of a massive six-day attack on the United States, during which, among other things, hackers targeted U.S. banks. It's notable for the incredible bandwidth used, which was far larger than that in a typical attack.

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Is Alexey Navalny Russia's Mandela -- or the Kremlin's Opposition Candidate?

It's been a topsy-turvy several months for Alexey Navalny, the fiery Russian opposition leader who has been compared to everyone from Nelson Mandela to Vaclav Havel. First, in July, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling nearly $500,000 from a state-owned timber company. Then, a day later, as protests against the verdict swelled, the 37-year-old anti-corruption activist was freed in a surprise move. In September, Navalny managed to compete in Moscow's mayoral race but lost to incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, who nearly doubled Navalny's vote count. A month later, Russia's Constitutional Court ruled that a law banning convicted criminals, including those with suspended sentences, from running for office was unconstitutional ("Good news, my brother criminals," Navalny tweeted at the time). And just last week, a Russian court suspended Navalny's jail sentence, though it appears Russian law would still prevent him from running in Russia's 2018 presidential elections, as he has discussed doing.   

"It's clear for me that the authorities are trying by all means to hound me out of politics, coming up with some restrictions and fabricated cases," Navalny observed after receiving his suspended sentence. 

But the ups-and-downs Navalny has endured in recent months raise a question: Is Navalny really the "man Vladimir Putin fears most," as the Wall Street Journal has crowned him, or is he the man the Kremlin has decided to manage as a credible -- but ultimately beatable -- opposition figure?

Acccording to the British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, he may be more of the latter. And there's evidence for that theory. In an interview with a Russian newspaper published on Monday, for instance, Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow's newly elected mayor, admitted that he consulted with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides about what Navalny's candidacy in the city's mayoral election before it was held. "I considered that Navalny should take part in the election and [their] attitude to it was positive," Sobyanin, a member of Putin's United Russia party, recalled (the Kremlin has insisted that it has not interfered with the legal twists and turns in Navalny's case).

In a recent paper for the Legatum Institute on the country's "postmodern dictatorship," Pomerantsev argues that Putin's Russia functions behind an elaborate façade of democracy. A case in point: the Russian news service RT, where, behind the glossy graphics, prominent Western commentators, native English-speaking anchors, and CNN-style reporting, the content is actually tightly controlled by a small group of Russian editors whose politics echo the Kremlin's.

As Pomerantsev writes, the Russian government "works less by oppressing narratives but by co-opting them until there is no more space for an opposition to exist in." Its most defining feature, he says, is "a liquid, shape-shifting approach to power."

Pomerantsev claims that the Kremlin began integrating Navalny into the political system as soon as he rose to prominence in 2011 by leading anti-government protests that accused the Kremlin of rigging parliamentary elections. First the Russian government coopted Navalny's appeals for good government and patriotism, then it started managing the opposition leader himself. As the New York Times reported last month, Vyacheslav Volodin, a prominent Putin aide opted during a closed-door meeting to permit a more democratic and open mayoral election in September in order to avoid protests similar to those led by Navalny two years ago -- a model reportedly called "competition without change." Sobyanin even helped Navalny get the necessary signatures to enter Moscow's mayoral race, assuming he would get less than 10 percent of the vote. "[T]he rules of engagement were ultimately rigged: Navalny has a potential five-year prison  sentence hanging over him and was not allowed to appear on federal television channels," Pomerantsev notes.

But with an energetic, American-style campaign complete with promotional stickers and a massive volunteer corps, Navalny fared much better than the Kremlin had anticipated, garnering 27 percent of the vote, according to official results (his campaign presented ample evidence of voter fraud and demanded a recount, to no avail).

Now Navalny finds himself out of politics, with a suspended prison sentence and little hope of competing in the 2018 presidential elections.

"We've come to the point where an innocent person is given a sentence, deprived of his electoral rights...and the people celebrate," Boris Nemtsov, another opposition leader, wrote on his Facebook page last week, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Pomerantsev's paper was recently discussed during a panel at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. The key discussion starts around 26 minutes into the clip:

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