It is once again exam time in Syria, Sudan, and Algeria, and with it, we find these countries disrupting Internet connectivity in an effort to prevent cheating on these exams. As they have done over the past several years, Syria and Sudan are implementing multi-hour nationwide Internet shutdowns. Algeria has also taken a similar approach in the past, but this year appears to be implementing more targeted website/application blocking.
Syria has been implementing Internet shutdowns across the country since 2011, but exam-related shutdowns have only been in place since 2016. In 2021, exams took place between May 31 and June 22, with multi-hour shutdowns observed on each of the exam days.
This year, the first shutdown was observed on May 30, with subsequent shutdowns (to date) seen on June 2, 6, and 12. In the Cloudflare Radar graph below, traffic for Syria drops to zero while the shutdowns are active. According to Internet Society Pulse, several additional shutdowns are expected through June 21. Each takes place between 02000530 UTC (0500–0830 local time). According to a published report, the current exam cycle covers more than 500,000 students for basic and general secondary education certificates.
Consistent with shutdowns observed in prior years, Syria is once again implementing them in an asymmetric fashion – that is, inbound traffic is disabled, but egress traffic remains. This is clearly visible in request traffic from Syria to Cloudflare’s 22.214.171.124 DNS resolver. As the graph below shows, queries from clients in Syria are able to exit the country and reach Cloudflare, but responses can’t return, leading to retry floods, visible as spikes in the graph.
Last year, the Syrian Minister of Education noted that, for the first time, encryption and surveillance technologies would be used in an effort to curtail cheating, with an apparent promise to suspend Internet shutdowns in the future if these technologies proved successful.
Sudan is also no stranger to nationwide Internet shutdowns, with some last lasting for multiple weeks. Over the last several years, Sudan has also implemented Internet shutdowns during secondary school exams in an effort to limit cheating or leaking of exam questions. (We covered the 2021 round of shutdowns in a blog post.)
According to a schedule published by digital rights organization AccessNow, this year’s Secondary Certificate Exams will be taking place in Sudan daily between June 11–22, except June 17. As of this writing, near-complete shutdowns have been observed on June 11, 12, and 13 between 0530-0830 UTC (0730-1030 local time), as seen in the graph below. The timing of these shutdowns aligns with a communication reportedly sent to subscribers of telecommunications services in the country, which stated “In implementation of the decision of the Attorney General, the Internet service will be suspended during the Sudanese certificate exam sessions from 8 in the morning until 11 in the morning.”
It is interesting to note that the shutdown, while nationwide, does not appear to be complete. The graph below shows that Cloudflare continues to see a small volume of HTTP requests from Sudatel during the shutdown periods. This is not completely unusual, as Sudatel may have public sector, financial services, or other types of customers that remain online.
Since 2018, Algeria has been shutting down the Internet nationwide during baccalaureate exams, following widespread cheating in 2016 that saw questions leaked online both before and during tests. These shutdowns reportedly cost businesses across the country an estimated 500 million Algerian Dinars (approximately $3.4 million USD) for every hour the Internet was unavailable. In 2021, there were two Internet shutdowns each day that exams took place—the first between 0700–1100 UTC (0800–1200 local time), and the second between 1330–1600 UTC (1430–1700 local time).
This year, more than 700,000 students will sit for the baccalaureate exams between June 12-16.
Perhaps recognizing the economic damage caused by these Internet shutdowns, this year the Algerian Minister of National Education announced that there would be no Internet shutdowns on exam days.
Thus far, it appears that this has been the case. However, it appears that the Algerian government has shifted to a content blocking-based approach, instead of a wide-scale Internet shutdown. The Cloudflare Radar graph below shows two nominal drops in country-level traffic during the two times on June 13 that the exams took place—0730–1000 UTC (0830–1100 local time) and 1330–1600 UTC (1430–1700 local time), similar to last year’s timing.
The disruptions are also visible in traffic graphs for several major Algerian network providers, as shown below.
Analysis of additional Cloudflare data further supports the hypothesis that Algeria is blocking access to specific websites and applications, rather than shutting down the Internet completely.
As described in a previous blog post, Network Error Logging (NEL) is a browser-based reporting system that allows users’ browsers to report connection failures to an endpoint specified by the webpage that failed to load. Below, a graph of NEL reports from browsers in Algeria shows clear spikes during the times (thus far) that the exams have taken place, with report levels significantly lower and more consistent during other times of the day.
In addition to Syria, Sudan, and Algeria, countries including India, Jordan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and Ethiopia have shut down or limited access to the Internet as exams took place. It is unclear whether these brute-force methods are truly effective at preventing cheating on these exams. However, it is clear that the impact of these shutdowns goes beyond students, as they impose a significant financial cost on businesses within the affected countries as they lose Internet access for multiple hours a day over the course of several weeks.