Today, as international intervention in the Syrian conflict is fast approaching, the phenomenon of the world’s “patriotic hackers” (see Chechnya, Kosovo, Estonia, Georgia, etc.) continues to grow, with the pro-government “Syrian Electronic Army” believed responsible for attacks on Twitter and the New York Times.
The Internet has changed everything, including our geopolitical “battlespace.” In 1982, during a previous Syrian uprising in the city of Hama, the government obliterated parts of the city with artillery fire and killed “many thousands” of civilians. But because the government had “cut all telephone and road communication with the city” (according to renowned Syria expert Robert Fisk) it was many weeks before the extent of the atrocity was discovered. I visited Hama in 1988, and the entire story was recounted to me by a complete stranger as we strolled past countless buildings strewn with bullet holes.
The difference between 1982 and 2013 is the Internet. Today, we have streaming news, social media, and hacker groups to help us understand what is happening anywhere and everywhere. In fact, anyone with an Internet-connected computer now possesses the historical equivalent of a printing press and a radio transmitter. Therefore, all battlegrounds, including the Syrian revolution, now have a cyber dimension whose size and impact are difficult to predict.
Somewhat quietly, Syria has been home to a few of the world’s most spectacular cyber attacks to date:
- In 2007, Israel allegedly turned off Syrian air defenses with a cyber attack prior to the Israeli Air Force’s destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor.
- In 2011, as the winds of the Arab Spring blew into Syria, Anonymous defaced the Syrian Ministry of Defense homepage, telling its soldiers: “You are responsible for protecting the Syrian people… Defend your country – rise up against the regime!”
- In 2012, with the Syrian revolution in high gear, computer hackers published the contents of President Assad’s personal email account, in which he joked about democratic reforms, spent thousands on consumer goods, and took advice from Iran on how to handle the rebellion.
The attacks on Twitter and the Times seem like annoyances, but they are not. In part, they are further confirmation of the hacking prowess of the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA). Recently, we blogged about the more serious SEA takedowns of international communications websites such as TrueCaller, Tango, and Viber, which could give Syrian intelligence access to the communications of millions of people – including real human beings who are vulnerable to espionage, intimidation, and/or arrest.
Website defacements and Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks are often more about image and propaganda than anything else, but the ubiquity of the World Wide Web and the amplification power of computer networks guarantee that information operations are more important than ever. They demonstrate a certain degree of “power” in the Internet age, and because sites like the Times have so many followers (30 million unique visitors each month), this attack is a propaganda coup for SEA, if for no other reason than all of the free advertising.