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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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.