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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If there’s no booze or naked women, what’s the point of being a footballer?

Peter Crouch came out with one of the wittiest football lines. When asked what he thought he would have been but for football, he replied: “A virgin.”

At a professional league ground near you, the following conversation will be taking place. After an excellent morning training session, in which the players all worked hard, and didn’t wind up the assistant coach they all hate, or cut the crotch out of the new trousers belonging to the reserve goalie, the captain or some senior player will go into the manager’s office.

“Hi, gaffer. Just thought I’d let you know that we’ve booked the Salvation Hall. They’ll leave the table-tennis tables in place, so we’ll probably have a few games, as it’s the players’ Christmas party, OK?”

“FECKING CHRISTMAS PARTY!? I TOLD YOU NO CHRISTMAS PARTIES THIS YEAR. NOT AFTER LAST YEAR. GERROUT . . .”

So the captain has to cancel the booking – which was actually at the Salvation Go Go Gentlemen’s Club on the high street, plus the Saucy Sporty Strippers, who specialise in naked table tennis.

One of the attractions for youths, when they dream of being a footballer or a pop star, is not just imagining themselves number one in the Prem or number one in the hit parade, but all the girls who’ll be clambering for them. Young, thrusting politicians have similar fantasies. Alas, it doesn’t always work out.

Today, we have all these foreign managers and foreign players coming here, not pinching our women (they’re too busy for that), but bringing foreign customs about diet and drink and no sex at half-time. Rotters, ruining the simple pleasures of our brave British lads which they’ve enjoyed for over a century.

The tabloids recently went all pious when poor old Wayne Rooney was seen standing around drinking till the early hours at the England team hotel after their win over Scotland. He’d apparently been invited to a wedding that happened to be going on there. What I can’t understand is: why join a wedding party for total strangers? Nothing more boring than someone else’s wedding. Why didn’t he stay in the bar and get smashed?

Even odder was the behaviour of two other England stars, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson. They made a 220-mile round trip from their hotel in Hertfordshire to visit a strip club, For Your Eyes Only, in Bournemouth. Bournemouth! Don’t they have naked women in Herts? I thought one of the points of having all these millions – and a vast office staff employed by your agent – is that anything you want gets fixed for you. Why couldn’t dancing girls have been shuttled into another hotel down the road? Or even to the lads’ own hotel, dressed as French maids?

In the years when I travelled with the Spurs team, it was quite common in provincial towns, after a Saturday game, for players to pick up girls at a local club and share them out.

Like top pop stars, top clubs have fixers who can sort out most problems, and pleasures, as well as smart solicitors and willing police superintendents to clear up the mess afterwards.

The England players had a night off, so they weren’t breaking any rules, even though they were going to play Spain 48 hours later. It sounds like off-the-cuff, spontaneous, home-made fun. In Wayne’s case, he probably thought he was doing good, being approachable, as England captain.

Quite why the other two went to Bournemouth was eventually revealed by one of the tabloids. It is Lallana’s home town. He obviously said to Jordan Henderson, “Hey Hendo, I know a cool club. They always look after me. Quick, jump into my Bentley . . .”

They spent only two hours at the club. Henderson drank water. Lallana had a beer. Don’t call that much of a night out.

In the days of Jimmy Greaves, Tony Adams, Roy Keane, or Gazza in his pomp, they’d have been paralytic. It was common for players to arrive for training still drunk, not having been to bed.

Peter Crouch, the former England player, 6ft 7in, now on the fringes at Stoke, came out with one of the wittiest football lines. When asked what he thought he would have been but for football, he replied: “A virgin.”

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 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage