Q+A: What happens when Web traffic goes through China?

A congressional advisory group said this week Web traffic to major U.S. corporate and government websites was routed through China for 18 minutes in April because of an incorrect signal sent by China Telecom.
The commission said it was unclear whether the incident was accidental but it affected other countries and amounted to the routing of traffic to 15 percent of all Internet destinations, going through China. China Telecom denied any hijacking of web traffic.
The report highlights growing tensions between both sides, strained since January, when Google Inc accused China of hacking into its system and stealing its intellectual property.
Following are some questions and answers on how Internet data flows work and what could have happened to the data in the 18 minutes it was routed through China.
Data over the Internet is sent from one destination to another over interconnected networks that form the Internet. Directing the flow of data are routers. The flow of data between routers is determined by the most efficient travel route and based on trust between Internet service providers and countries. To add security layers to the networks would slow down the flow of web traffic.
On April 8, China Telecom sent out an incorrect routing signal that advertised routing through China as the most efficient route. This caused web traffic to 15 percent of the world’s Internet sites to pass through Chinese servers for 18 minutes. This means data traveling to sites owned by the U.S. Senate, NASA and the Commerce department as well as sites in Brazil, France and Russia were passed through China. Dell, YouTube and CNN were corporate sites reportedly affected.
Internet users in China are subject to censorship behind what is known as the “Great Firewall of China.” The system of gateways and routers that block users from China from accessing popular social networking sites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
From 2004 to 2005, Cisco was criticized for selling “mirroring routers” to China. These routers now form the backbone for its firewall and allow the Chinese government to monitor the Internet use of its citizens if it wishes.
This means the data that travelled through China in the 18-minute period could have been easily copied, and if the data was not encrypted, it could have been edited and resent to its destination in a blink of an eye.

Reuters, Yahoo.