When major world crises erupt these days, a least some members of the media rush to check the blog of Renesys, a small New Hampshire-based firm specializing in what it calls "Internet intelligence." The insights found there into which dictator has kicked his country off the Internet for how long is a byproduct of Renesys's core work of selling information on the flow of Internet traffic to Internet service providers. But by monitoring the Internet's vital signs, the company can see how the ever-evolving global network of networks fits into global events.
That the company's blog takes a mostly dry, dispassionate tone hardly masks that it is offering a juicy peek into how the world works today. When Russia quietly turned on the hastily built 29-mile Kerch Strait Cable connecting it to Crimea, Renesys was able to tell the rest of the world about it right away.
Doug Madory is the Renesys senior analyst who writes much of the company's coverage of news events. In his office in Hanover, N.H., Madory sits with a live feed of Internet routing data running on his computer, he says, and a TeleGeography map showing global Internet cable connections on his wall. A 2009 edition, it's a bit dated technologically, but it serves another purpose. "When I forget where Turkmenistan is," says Madory, "I can look at the map."
Madory and his colleagues have the rare ability to see in real time where a nation is situated in the global digital fabric. When unrest began in Ukraine in March, Madory says that his phone started ringing with reporters asking about the odds of Vladimir Putin hijacking Ukraine's Internet connections. Not likely; despite Russia hulking to its east, Ukraine, says Madory, "looks like a European country in terms of the level of domestic connectivity and the international connections they've got." Ukraine's connections to the the rest of the world, says Madory, "run mostly to the west."
But what, exactly, is Madory watching? Mostly, he says, it's a ticker reflecting the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), the means for routing Internet traffic. Renesys collects that data from more than 400 Internet service providers, many of whom hand it over freely in exchange for getting a better handle on their competitive landscape. Developed, the story goes, in 1980s on the back of a handful of napkins by network engineers in Texas, today those BGP routing tables tell Internet traffic how to make its way through connected networks. Renesys tracks billions of digital "hops" every day to see who is routing traffic where.
To fine-tune their view of things, Renesys will also run diagnostic tests; "Traceroute data," says Madory, "is like throwing dust down a hall and watching where the wind takes it."
And that research gets supplemented with reporting. "It's not just computer science that's happening," says Madory. "The data can only take me so far. At some point I need someone local to try to help me interpret it." Iraq is of particular interest; the Air Force veteran was stationed there once. When something pops up on his radar, Madory will reach out to locals -- small ISPs, consultants on the ground, telecom officials -- to vet what he's seeing. In June, Iraq experienced significant outages, in part, Madory found, because militants destroyed an interconnection point in Mosul. From 5,786 miles away, he told a contact in the Iraqi government what was happening in his country. Says Madory with a laugh, "I made that guy look like a genius."
He's able to know what a country should look like in the data and thus spot anomalies, he says, like when Thailand's government shuts down that country's Internet during protests, when North Korea's miniscule but generally resilient Internet gets hit by a cyber attack or when Bangladesh, long dependent on a single submarine cable, starts routing Internet traffic through India.
Madory, 37, grew up in Hyde Park, N.Y., and attended the University of Virginia on an ROTC scholarship before, he says, joining the military to do communications and computer work. He eventually made his way to computer science grad school at Dartmouth and then fell into the job at Renesys about five years ago.
That was shortly before the Arab Spring, and Renesys realized that the data the company was collecting as a matter of course could help explain what was being hinted about in the Middle East. "Egypt Leaves the Internet," Renesys co-founder Jim Cowie declared in January of 2011.* But at the time, says Madory, "we didn't have our software smart enough just to alert us when these things happen." So they've since built functionality into their tools to automatically detect disturbances.
And, for that matter, new growths. On a whim, Madory set up an e-mail alert letting him know the progress of Cuba's ALBA-1, a long-promised a fiber optic connection to Venezuela that has been surrounded by rumors of government corruption. On the Internet he came across a blogger wrestling with the question of whether the connection actually existed, and if it does, when it might turn on. To "put him out of his misery," says Madory, he passed along data showing that the cable was indeed there under the water but dormant. That got mention in the Miami Herald, convincing him, he says, that there's an audience hungry for the work he's doing.
Renesys was recently purchased by the firm Dyn, and Madory says that the team is supportive of what he's up to, even if it has to take a backseat to paying work on occasion. Still, few governments have come knocking.
It's a remarkable quirk of the modern era that through constantly-churning data one small firm can have far more power to see the world clearly than many countries have. But Madory says that he's going to stick to the approach he's taken thus far. "We don't want to judge these events. We just want to offer some objective analysis of what's occurring."
*Correction: This piece originally misstated the date that the Renesys blog post on Egypt's Internet shutdown ran. It was January of 2011, not December of 2010.