Asma Assad comforts Syrian women in a photo from the offical Instagram account
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In Syria, the internet has become just another battleground

President Assad’s Instagram account is one of the more surreal examples of the use of social networking in the Syrian war.

The Syrian president is photographed, sharp-suited and chinless, cradling a young cancer patient. On 21 March his fashionably gaunt wife is pictured embracing a tearful mother whose child has gone missing. More than 1,000 people “like” the shot. Bashar al-Assad’s Instagram account is one of the more surreal examples of how social networking sites are being used by all sides in the Syrian conflict, in this instance to send out the message that “the Assads are doing just fine”.

There is nothing inherently liberal or democratic about the internet, and in Syria it has become just another battleground. The weapons wielded by both sides to manipulate their message, spy on the enemy and sabotage its plans are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and dangerous.

It was popular in early 2011 to describe the Arab spring uprisings as Twitter revolutions. Social networking sites did help facilitate demonstrations in North Africa, by allowing citizens to organise protests or spread information on human rights abuses, but tech often failed activists, too. At times, the governments of Egypt, Libya and Syria simply shut down internet access or phone signals nationwide. Meanwhile, western firms, such as the American company Blue Coat, provided dictators with the ability to censor websites and monitor online activity, so that a critical tweet, blog or comment could land the author in jail.

This prompted democracy activists to fight back. In August 2011, five months after the start of the conflict in their country, Syrians trying to get online confronted a strange blank screen bearing the following warning: “This is a deliberate, temporary internet breakdown. Please read carefully and spread the following message. Your internet activity is being monitored.” Users could click through for advice on how to use the internet safely, such as by going through Tor – a service that routes activity via a complex network of computers, making it very hard to track an individual’s web footprint or discover his physical location. Tor was originally developed by the US navy but is now available to anyone with a strong interest in covering tracks online: from democracy activists to al-Qaeda affiliates, fraudsters and drug dealers. The same is true of the “dark web”, the part of the internet that is not indexed by search engines. (I had wanted to speak to the western tech charities working in Syria to help activists use these tools, but for security reasons they did not want to be mentioned by name or to discuss details of their work.)

The message that confronted Syrians in August 2011, however, was not the work of an established NGO. It was organised by Telecomix, a loose collective of “hacktivists” that was founded in Sweden in 2006 but now has volunteers worldwide. Their methods range from the hi-tech – it was Telecomix hacking that exposed how the Syrian government was using Blue Coat surveillance equipment – to the inventive use of low-tech: Telecomix volunteers taught Syrian citizens how to make walkie-talkies using household objects such as clock radios. During internet blackouts in Egypt and Syria, Telecomix collected phone numbers of offices, cafés and university departments and faxed them information on how to access a dial-up internet connection it had set up using a server in Europe.

On the other side of the battle is the Syrian Electronic Army, a network of pro-Assad hackers. Some of its stunts have been immature: one of its first successes was posting a rumour on E! Online that Justin Bieber had come out as gay. But researchers at the tech firm Hewlett Packard believe the SEA is among the top ten most sophisticated hacking circles in the world. Its pranks can have huge real-world implications, too: when it hacked into Associated Press’s Twitter account last April to post a fake tweet announcing that there had been two explosions at the White House, the Dow Jones fell 150 points.

Perhaps even more worrying for anti-government activists has been the SEA’s development of malware (malicious software) targeted at Assad’s opponents. One SEA campaign sent out links for a fake security service called AntiHacker. When people clicked on the link, they inadvertently installed a remote-access tool that allowed the SEA to record keystrokes, steal passwords and capture webcam activity. Pro-government hackers have also sent out malware disguised as files documenting human rights abuses by the military, or as news links posted on Facebook accounts of prominent anti-government activists. Online, it is hard for Syrians to know whom to trust.

Even Telecomix appears to be retreating from its work in Syria. I emailed Peter Fein, a Telecomix hacker and informal spokesman for the group, though he’s now taking a break and “putting his life back together”. He wrote that Telecomix was cutting back on its activity this year, as “comms support is both more difficult and less important as things move from protests to civil war”. In 2013, the group helped evacuate some of its local contacts and their families from Syria, because things were getting “nasty”. Telecomix Syria’s Twitter feed now seems mainly focused on charting the rise and fall of internet connectivity in various parts of the country. For all the sophisticated hacking battles taking place, older methods are sometimes more reliable.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Pity the Premier League – so much money can get you into all sorts of bother

You’ve got to feel sorry for our top teams. It's hard work, maintaining their brand.

I had lunch with an old girlfriend last week. Not old, exactly, just a young woman of 58, and not a girlfriend as such – though I have loads of female friends; just someone I knew as a girl on our estate in Cumbria when she was growing up and I was friendly with her family.

She was one of many kind, caring people from my past who wrote to me after my wife died in February, inviting me to lunch, cheer up the poor old soul. Which I’ve not been. So frightfully busy.

I never got round to lunch till last week.

She succeeded in her own career, became pretty well known, but not as well off financially as her husband, who is some sort of City whizz.

I visited her large house in the best part of Mayfair, and, over lunch, heard about their big estate in the West Country and their pile in Majorca, finding it hard to take my mind back to the weedy, runny-nosed little girl I knew when she was ten.

Their three homes employ 25 staff in total. Which means there are often some sort of staff problems.

How awful, I do feel sorry for you, must be terrible. It’s not easy having money, I said, managing somehow to keep back the fake tears.

Afterwards, I thought about our richest football teams – Man City, Man United and Chelsea. It’s not easy being rich like them, either.

In football, there are three reasons you have to spend the money. First of all, because you can. You have untold wealth, so you gobble up possessions regardless of the cost, and regardless of the fact that, as at Man United, you already have six other superstars playing in roughly the same position. You pay over the odds, as with Pogba, who is the most expensive player in the world, even though any halfwit knows that Messi and Ronaldo are infinitely more valuable. It leads to endless stresses and strains and poor old Wayne sitting on the bench.

Obviously, you are hoping to make the team better, and at the same time have the luxury of a whole top-class team sitting waiting on the bench, who would be desired by every other club in Europe. But the second reason you spend so wildly is the desire to stop your rivals buying the same players. It’s a spoiler tactic.

Third, there’s a very modern and stressful element to being rich in football, and that’s the need to feed the brand. Real Madrid began it ten years or so ago with their annual purchase of a galáctico. You have to refresh the team with a star name regularly, whatever the cost, if you want to keep the fans happy and sell even more shirts round the world each year.

You also need to attract PROUD SUPPLIERS OF LAV PAPER TO MAN CITY or OFFICIAL PROVIDER OF BABY BOTTLES TO MAN UNITED or PARTNERS WITH CHELSEA IN SUGARY DRINK. These suppliers pay a fortune to have their product associated with a famous Premier League club – and the club knows that, to keep up the interest, they must have yet another exciting £100m star lined up for each new season.

So, you can see what strains and stresses having mega money gets them into, trying to balance all these needs and desires. The manager will get the blame in the end when things start to go badly on the pitch, despite having had to accommodate some players he probably never craved. If you’re rich in football, or in most other walks in life, you have to show it, have all the required possessions, otherwise what’s the point of being rich?

One reason why Leicester did so well last season was that they had no money. This forced them to bond and work hard, make do with cheapo players, none of them rubbish, but none the sort of galáctico a super-Prem club would bother with.

Leicester won’t repeat that trick this year. It was a one-off. On the whole, the £100m player is better than the £10m player. The rich clubs will always come good. But having an enormous staff, at any level, is all such a worry for the rich. You have to feel sorry . . .

Hunter Davies’s “The Beatles Book” is published by Ebury

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories