The Syrian Regime’s Survival Strategy: Shut Down the Web

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my follow up on the Syrian cyberwar.

When the Internet went dark in Syria last month, it halted more than just the opposition’s Facebook campaigns and YouTube videos of atrocities committed by government forces. It caused a lot of action on the ground to grind down as well. “Most aid work stopped because the people involved could not exchange the needs and the addresses to which aid should be delivered,” says Susanne Fischer, Middle East program manager at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, which offers training in digital security to activists in the Arab world. Fischer says that “some overworked activists were forced to take a break. When I asked one person inside what he had been doing while being cut off from the Internet, he said: ‘I played video games.’”

Syria’s civil war appears to have entered a decisive phase. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are digging in as rebel fighters close in on Damascus. It’s little coincidence that the rebels’ push toward the capital gained strength after activists regained access to the Internet following a two-day blackout in late November. It remains an open question, however, whether that momentum will be slowed should the government attempt to shut down the Web again.

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The Hackers of Damascus

My story on the cyberwar in Syria is the cover story of this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek.

Taymour Karim didn’t crack under interrogation. His Syrian captors beat him with their fists, with their boots, with sticks, with chains, with the butts of their Kalashnikovs. They hit him so hard they broke two of his teeth and three of his ribs. They threatened to keep torturing him until he died. “I believed I would never see the sun again,” he recalls. But Karim, a 31-year-old doctor who had spent the previous months protesting against the government in Damascus, refused to give up the names of his friends.

It didn’t matter. His computer had already told all. “They knew everything about me,” he says. “The people I talked to, the plans, the dates, the stories of other people, every movement, every word I said through Skype. They even knew the password of my Skype account.” At one point during the interrogation, Karim was presented with a stack of more than 1,000 pages of printouts, data from his Skype chats and files his torturers had downloaded remotely using a malicious computer program to penetrate his hard drive. “My computer was arrested before me,” he says.

Much has been written about the rebellion in Syria: the protests, the massacres, the car bombs, the house-to-house fighting. Tens of thousands have been killed since the war began in early 2011. But the struggle for the future of the country has also unfolded in another arena—on a battleground of Facebook pages and YouTube accounts, of hacks and counterhacks. Just as rival armies vie for air superiority, the two sides of the Syrian civil war have spent much of the last year and a half locked in a struggle to dominate the Internet. Pro-government hackers have penetrated opposition websites and broken into the computers of Reuters and Al Jazeera to spread disinformation. On the other side, the hacktivist group Anonymous has infiltrated at least 12 Syrian government websites, including that of the Ministry of Defense, and released millions of stolen e-mails.

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