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

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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