The Syrian Electronic Army thwarts protesters by actively targeting political opposition and western websites.
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Aaron Schachter: In Syria, one of the largest anti-government protests so far turned deadly today. In the city of Hama activists say security forces fired on demonstrators killing at least 34 people. Syria’s government also cut Internet service across most of the country, effectively blocking a key portal of protest. But it’s not just regime opponents who are mobilizing online, so are government supporters involved with something called the Syrian Electronic Army. It aims to thwart not just the protestors, but also their sympathizers in the West. Ronald Diebert directs the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He’s been researching the Syrian Electronic Army. Professor, what is this group exactly?
Ronald Diebert: Well, we don’t really know much about the group because they operate with a degree of anonymity. They claim that they are citizens, patriots of Syria who want to show their support of the government by defacing websites of groups that are based outside of Syria.
Schachter: What sorts of things are they doing online?
Diebert: They’ve hacked into about 50 websites, replaced the websites with supportive messages of Syria or messages telling Americans and Westerners to keep out of Syria’s business. They’ve also spammed, left messages on the comment section of the Facebook sites of everyone from President Obama to Oprah Winfrey.
Schachter: So this sounds like fairly serious stuff.
Diebert: It is and it isn’t. On the one hand it is pretty trivial to do this sort of things. We’re just talking about web defacement after all, not attacks on critical infrastructures or anything of that sort. But what is serious about it is it represents a sea-change in the way that governments like Syria are approaching cyberspace. They are developing new techniques, offensive techniques like this to shape and manipulate this domain to their strategic advantage. That’s quite a difference from the way they approached, say, even five years ago where it was very much from a position of fear.
Schachter: Syria was a bit late in adopting the Internet for most of its citizens. Do you think the reason was that they were trying to come up with ways of censoring it without letting people know they were censoring it?
Diebert: Oh, our research suggests in places like Syria, authoritarian context, yes, the government is very wary of opening up communications. Our testing in that country for the last six years, every year we’ve tested for Internet censorship. They are one of the most pervasive filterers of Internet content; just about everything that would be critical of the regime is banned. Until just earlier this year, they opened up access to Facebook, to YouTube, some other sites, presumably to allow an outlet for the Syrian Electronic Army to flourish.
Schachter: Who is actually doing the defacing of Twitter and Facebook sites and things like that? Is it the Syrian government or folks doing it on their own?
Diebert: Well the evidence we have is that there is some connection to the Syrian government in terms of the association’s IP addresses; something called the Syrian Computer Society. That is a technically non-governmental organization, but at one point in time it was actually headed up by the Bashar al-Assad himself, the current president of Syria. I think generally speaking in a context like Syria for an organization like that to operate at all it would at least have to have the tacit approval of the government.
Schachter: Do you think they’re trying to disguise themselves one way or another?
Diebert: I think they’re trying to mask the attribution so that there is not a direct link that’s obvious so that the Syria government can have a degree of plausible deniability. We’ve seen the same sort of thing going on in Iran, for example.
Schachter: Ronald Diebert directs the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto where he’s been researching the activities of the Syrian Electronic Army. Thank you Professor Diebert.
Diebert: My pleasure.
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