The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks

The social-media site's security team talks to The Atlantic -- revealing key details about a revolution that could become a parable for Internet activism.

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It was on Christmas Day that Facebook's Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan first noticed strange things going on in Tunisia. Reports started to trickle in that political-protest pages were being hacked. "We were getting anecdotal reports saying, 'It looks like someone logged into my account and deleted it,'" Sullivan said.

For Tunisians, it was another run-in with Ammar, the nickname they've given to the authorities that censor the country's Internet. They'd come to expect it.

In the days after the holiday, Sullivan's security team started to take a closer look at the data, but it wasn't entirely clear what was happening. In the US, they could look to see if different IP addresses, which identify particular nodes on the network, were accessing the same account. But in Tunisia, the addresses are commonly reassigned. The evidence that accounts were being hacked remained anecdotal. Facebook's security team couldn't prove something was wrong in the data.  It wasn't until after the new year that the shocking truth emerged:

Ammar was in the process of stealing an entire country's worth of passwords.

* * *

The Democracy ReportHere's what's at stake. December of 2010 saw the most substantial civil unrest in Tunisia in the reign of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which began with a bloodless coup in November 1987. Beginning with street protests in the country's poor interior region of Sidi Bouzid, the calls for change were soon echoed by more powerful civil society organizations, notably the country's only labor union, the UGTT. But despite the turmoil, it wasn't clear what exactly might happen.

"It is too early to know if these protests signal the beginning of the end for Ben Ali," wrote Christopher Alexander in Foreign Policy on January 3. "However, Tunisia's current political scene looks a bit like it did in 1975 and 1976, the beginning of the long slide for Ben Ali's predecessor, Habib Bourguiba."

That is to say, even expert analysts of the country couldn't tell if Ben Ali would remain in power for a few more weeks or a decade. It did not feel inevitable that Ben Ali would be deposed. People had protested in the streets before. Revolution had been in the air. It wasn't clear that this time would be different.

There has been a lot of debate about whether Twitter helped unleash the massive changes that led Ben Ali to leave office on January 14, but Facebook appears to have played a more important role in spreading dissent. 

"I think Facebook played a bigger role in this case," said Jillian York of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, who has been tracking the Tunisian situation closely. "There are a lot more Facebook users than Twitter users. Facebook allows for strong ties in a way that Twitter doesn't. You're not just conversing."

One early sign that Tunisians felt Facebook could be useful: Back in July, bloggers Photoshopped a picture of Mark Zuckerberg to show him holding up a sign that read, "Sayeb Sala7, ya 3ammar," the slogan for a freedom of expression campaign late in 2010. Later, Zuckerberg popped up on a sign outside the Saudi Arabian embassy carried by Tunisian protesters demanding the arrest of Ben Ali.

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York said that Tunisian bloggers and activists had told her that the ability to upload video to Facebook drove its usage because many other video-sharing sites had been blocked by the government.

The videos -- shot shakily with cameraphones -- created a link between what was happening on the streets in the poor areas of the country and the broader Tunisian population. Many are graphic. In one video -- since taken down, apparently -- a young man is lying on a gurney with his skull cracked open. Brain oozes out. Cries are heard all around. The video focuses in on the man's face and as the camera pulls back, we see that there are two other people with cameraphones recording the injury. Video after video of the revolutionary events captures other people videoing the same event. Those videos, and the actions they recorded, became the raw material for a much greater online apparatus that could amplify each injury, death, and protest.

But it wasn't just videos that people were sharing. All kinds of information passed between Tunisians. For activists as well as everyday people, Facebook became an indispensable resource for tracking the minute-by-minute development of the situation. By January 8, Facebook says that it had several hundred thousand more users than it had ever had before in Tunisia, a country with a few more people than Michigan. Scaled up to the size to the U.S., the burst of activity was like adding 10 million users in a week. And the average time spent on the site more than doubled what it had been before.

Rim Abida, a Tunisian-born, Harvard-educated development consultant now living in Rio de Janeiro, said that over the course of the events, her "relationship to Facebook changed entirely."

"It basically went from being a waste of time or procrastination tool, to my go-to source on up-to-date information," Abida wrote in a Facebook message to me. "My mom is back in Tunisia on her own, and my Tunisian network on Facebook was posting the most up-to-date info on what was happening on the ground. It was stuff the major media channels weren't reporting, such as numbers to call to reach the military and what was happening when in what specific neighborhood."

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