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In Syria's Civil War, Cyber Attacks are the "New Modern Warfare"

BY Lisa Goldman | Wednesday, August 8 2012

For years, the Syrian ruling regime under President Bashar el-Assad pursued a policy of draconian control over the Internet. The mukhabarat, or intelligence service, monitored online news sites, arrested bloggers, filtered foreign media outlets, blocked Skype and all the popular social media platforms — including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube. In December 2011, more than six months after the current uprising began, the regime issued a ban on iPhones, with the warning that anyone found in possession of one would be treated as a suspected spy.

Then, suddenly, without announcement, just as the uprising hit its stride, the regime unblocked everything. Anti regime activists immediately took advantage of the new freedom, using Bambuser to broadcast live from besieged areas like the Baba Amr area of Homs, uploading video reports to Youtube, tweeting video links and live reports and curating Facebook pages. While not always completely reliable, citizen reporting gave a visual sense of what was going on in Syria even as the international media was either denied entry visas or prevented from moving about the country freely.

Over the past few weeks, however, several incidents have made it clear that the regime had nefarious motives in unblocking social media platforms. The Syrian Electronic Army, an arm of the embattled regime's intelligence service, is engaging in cyber warfare. According to a report by Reuters,

"Cyber attacks are the new reality of modern warfare," said Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at the US Naval War College. "We can expect more... from all directions. In war, the greatest casualty is the truth. Each side will try to manipulate information to make their own side look like it is gaining while the other is losing."

Reuters was hacked twice in 48 hours over the past weekend; in one case, the hackers posted what purported to be an interview with the leader of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the Reuters blog; in the second case, the Reuters Twitter account was briefly taken over as well and false stories disseminated.

The Christian Science Monitor recently published a feature story that digs into the cyber war that Syrian Intelligence is pursuing. The mukhabarat is using social media to track down anti-regime activists; more insidiously, it is using expensive technology to eavesdrop and is also dropping spyware into activists' computers.

Luring opposition sympathizers with tainted video links in e-mail, fake Skype encryption tools, tainted online documents, hackers believed to be allied to Syria's government have in recent months deployed an array of powerful spyware with names like DarkComet, backdoor.bruet, and Blackshades. Available on the Internet, these malware are used to infiltrate the personal computers of opposition figures and rights activists and send back information on their friends and contacts as well as passwords, cybersecurity experts say. The impact of this spying is hard to gauge. But even as the physical battle intensifies in and around Damascas, Syria cyber watchers are worried.

Deutsche Welle reports that pro-regime hacktivists are filling social networks with spam, engaging in a propaganda battle with anti-regime activists on the latter's Facebook, Twitter and Youtube pages.

The regime has access to expensive technology to wage its cyber war, but anti-regime activists can also manipulate opinion with selective reporting. As J David Goodman pointed out in an interview with techPresident about Watching Syria's War, the New York Times' project of curating and analyzing Syrian citizen media reports, much of the information is difficult or even impossible to verify; and there have been cases of activists giving bad information, whether intentionally or not.