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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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.