With all the talk about Syrian protesters embracing Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, we often don't hear much about the Syrian regime's own cyber activists: the Syrian Electronic Army. Today, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reminds us of their existence, explaining how e-army members--whom it claims are "not hackers"--convey the "true image of the events in Syria" by "monitoring what is being published on Arab and foreign web pages and then leaving hundreds of thousands of messages on these pages"--effectively turning the opposition's "weapons" against them. So, if not hackers, sort of comments commandos.
This isn't the first time officials have publicly praised the Syrian Electronic Army. In an address to the nation in June, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad congratulated the anonymous network for serving as "a real army in virtual reality." The regime claims e-army members are simply patriotic youth, but dissident Rami Nakhleh tells AFP that they are regime "thugs" and Iranian activists (the article identifies one e-army member: the son of a powerful Syrian intelligence officer and ambassador to Jordan). The University of Toronto's Ronald Diebert, who's been researching the Syrian Electronic Army, tells PRI that the organization must have at least "the tacit approval of the government," and adds that the group's IP addresses have been traced to an NGO formerly run by Assad.
What virtual attacks is the e-army carrying out? A look at its website and Facebook and YouTube pages suggests that the group typically tries to shut down opposition sites and flood western news sites and the Facebook pages of everyone from Hillary Clinton to Oprah Winfrey with pro-Assad comments. The e-army also opportunistically exploits security vulnerabilities to deface more obscure sites. In this video, the e-army shows how it hacked into the website for a local town council in England. "Covering the website of Leamington Spa city council in pro-regime graffiti seems a long way from the streets of Damascus," Danny O'Brien writes at the Irish Times. "But such random actions disrupt online the coherent image protesters would like to present, of an isolated, unsophisticated regime about to fall."
On their Facebook page, the Syrian Electronic Army likes to post trophies of its exploits. When the U.S. ambassador visited the volatile town of Hama earlier this month, the e-army voiced its anger at the Facebook page for the U.S. Embassy in Damascus (all screencaps, including notations, are the e-army's):
The e-army also visited President Obama's Facebook page:
The Syrian e-army claimed responsibility for defacing this Syrian web forum that it accused of spreading "fabricated video clips of anti-regime protests in Syria," according to the Information Warfare Monitor.
And then there's the hack of UCLA's website, which prompted Wired's Bruce Sterling to observe, "My, they're awful polite about it."
In terms of the larger significance of these attacks, the University of Toronto's Ronald Diebert explains that while "we're just talking about web defacement," the Syrian Electronic Army's operations represent a serious "sea-change in the way that governments like Syria are approaching cyberspace." He adds, "They are developing new techniques, offensive techniques like this to shape and manipulate this domain to their strategic advantage. That's quite a difference from the way they approached, say, even five years ago where it was very much from a position of fear." Indeed, Diebert's project, the Information Warfare Monitor, noted that "Syria has become the first Arab country to have a public Internet Army hosted on its national networks to openly launch cyber attacks on its enemies."