In recent weeks, the hacker collective known as the Syrian Electronic Army has launched attacks all over the web. They’ve effectively shut down Facebook pages for ABC News, The Atlantic, Oprah Winfrey and the U.S. Department of Treasury. This week, they attacked websites at Harvard University, leaving behind pro-Assad messages. All of the targets have presented viewpoints critical of the Assad regime.
Jared Keller is an associate editor at The Atlantic and he’s written about the Syrian Electronic Army recently. He says they have a couple of different tactics. “One is what’s called a distributed denial of service attack,” he says. “It’s when a large number of people access a website in such high volume the website becomes inaccessible to other users. But they’ve also engaged in somewhat more sophisticated hacking activities, breaking into and disabling and defacing entire websites with pro-Syrian digital graffiti. And they’ve attacked a large variety of websites, from the Barack Obama Facebook page, ABC News, The Telegraph and the U.S. Department of Treasury as well as The Atlantic’s own Facebook page.”
Syria has been the scene of months of anti-government protests. Max Fisher, also an associate editor at The Atlantic and co-author of the article with Keller, says it’s unclear whether the hackers are officially part of the Assad regime, but they are loyal to him. Fisher says they seem to have two goals: “The first is to deny the online public space from activists and demonstrators in kind of the same way security forces on ground try to deny physical space. In Egypt and in Libya, activists could get around security forces by just going online until they had a critical mass to take to the streets. But in Syria, that’s more difficult because the Syrian Electronic Army is making it difficult to come together.”
“The second thing they’re doing is disrupting connections between demonstrators and the outside world. Pages on Facebook where people might gather, western media outlets that might be running quotes from activists, as we did. It’s really just about filling it up with noise so that it’s difficult to differentiate real people from spam.”
If all this reminds you of the hacker group known as Anonymous, you’re not alone. Anonymous has been shutting down or defacing sites of groups they disagree with for some time, including the Syrian government’s. But the Syrian Electronic Army is pro-government. Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says, “I’ve never seen a group like this at this scale, attacking such large international targets.”
So could this activity on a screen lead to meaningful political change in the streets? York says, “I don’t feel the Syrian Electronic Army has been successful in changing the narrative for public, not winning hearts and minds. But at the same time, the fact that Anonymous has pitted itself against the Syrian Electronic Army may have raised attention for the cause of the Syrian opposition.”
Also in this program, we struggle with how to handle gadget news. The new Amazon tablet is on the way. It could be something life-altering that you’ll love spending money on. Or it could be just a dumb waste of dollars for something you don’t really need.