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The Hackers of Damascus


The Hackers of Damascus

Photograph by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images; Photo illustration by Joe Magee

Taymour Karim didn’t crack under interrogation. His Syrian captors beat him with their fists, with their boots, with sticks, with chains, with the butts of their Kalashnikovs. They hit him so hard they broke two of his teeth and three of his ribs. They threatened to keep torturing him until he died. “I believed I would never see the sun again,” he recalls. But Karim, a 31-year-old doctor who had spent the previous months protesting against the government in Damascus, refused to give up the names of his friends.

It didn’t matter. His computer had already told all. “They knew everything about me,” he says. “The people I talked to, the plans, the dates, the stories of other people, every movement, every word I said through Skype. They even knew the password of my Skype account.” At one point during the interrogation, Karim was presented with a stack of more than 1,000 pages of printouts, data from his Skype chats and files his torturers had downloaded remotely using a malicious computer program to penetrate his hard drive. “My computer was arrested before me,” he says.

Photographs by Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images; Sana/AP Photo; Photo illustration by Joe Magee

Much has been written about the rebellion in Syria: the protests, the massacres, the car bombs, the house-to-house fighting. Tens of thousands have been killed since the war began in early 2011. But the struggle for the future of the country has also unfolded in another arena—on a battleground of Facebook (FB) pages and YouTube accounts, of hacks and counterhacks. Just as rival armies vie for air superiority, the two sides of the Syrian civil war have spent much of the last year and a half locked in a struggle to dominate the Internet. Pro-government hackers have penetrated opposition websites and broken into the computers of Reuters (TRI) and Al Jazeera to spread disinformation. On the other side, the hacktivist group Anonymous has infiltrated at least 12 Syrian government websites, including that of the Ministry of Defense, and released millions of stolen e-mails.

The Syrian conflict illustrates the extent to which the very tools that rebels in the Middle East have employed to organize and sustain their movements are now being used against them. It provides a glimpse of the future of warfare, in which computer viruses and hacking techniques can be as critical to weakening the enemy as bombs and bullets. Over the past three months, I made contact with and interviewed by phone and e-mail participants on both sides of the Syrian cyberwar. Their stories shed light on a largely hidden aspect of a conflict with no end in sight—and show how the Internet has become a weapon of war.
 
 
The cyberwar in Syria began with a feint. On Feb. 8, 2011, just as the Arab Spring was reaching a crescendo, the government in Damascus suddenly reversed a long-standing ban on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the Arabic version of Wikipedia. It was an odd move for a regime known for heavy-handed censorship; before the uprising, police regularly arrested bloggers and raided Internet cafes. And it came at an odd time. Less than a month earlier demonstrators in Tunisia, organizing themselves using social networking services, forced their president to flee the country after 23 years in office. Protesters in Egypt used the same tools to stage protests that ultimately led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The outgoing regimes in both countries deployed riot police and thugs and tried desperately to block the websites and accounts affiliated with the revolutionaries. For a time, Egypt turned off the Internet altogether.

Syria, however, seemed to be taking the opposite tack. Just as protesters were casting about for the means with which to organize and broadcast their messages, the government appeared to be handing them the keys.

Dlshad Othman, a 25-year-old computer technician in Damascus, immediately grew suspicious of the regime’s motives. Young, Kurdish, and recently finished with his mandatory military service, Othman opposed President Bashar al-Assad. Working for an Internet service provider, he knew that Syria—like many other countries, including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain—controlled its citizens’ access to the Web. The same technology the government used to censor websites allowed it to monitor Internet traffic and intercept communications. Popular services such as Facebook, Skype, Google Maps, and YouTube gave Syria’s revolutionaries capabilities that until a couple of decades ago would have been available only to the world’s most sophisticated militaries. But as long as Damascus controlled the Internet, they’d be using these tools under the eye of the government.

Shortly after the Syrian revolution began in March 2011, Othman’s political views cost him his job. He decided to dedicate himself full time to the opposition, joining the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus to document violence against journalists in the country. He also began teaching his fellow activists ways to stay safe online. Othman instructed them how to encrypt e-mails and encouraged them to use tools like Tor software, which enables anonymous Web browsing by rerouting traffic through a series of distant servers. When Tor turned out to be too slow to live-stream protests or scenes of government attacks against civilians, Othman began purchasing accounts on virtual private networks (VPNs) and sharing them with his friends and contacts. A VPN is basically a tunnel inside the public Internet that allows users to communicate in a secure fashion. For a monthly fee, you can buy access to servers that create encrypted paths between computers; the VPN also disguises the identities and locations of your machine and others on the network. Spies can’t read e-mails sent via VPN, and they have a hard time figuring out where they came from.

Othman’s efforts worked at first, but very quickly Damascus blocked off-the-shelf VPNs and upgraded its Internet filters in ways that made the VPNs inoperative. By the summer of 2011, Othman had become frustrated with the Western VPN providers, which he felt were too slow to adapt to the government’s crackdowns. He bought space on outside servers, set up VPNs of his own, and began actively managing them to make sure safe connections remained available.

Othman was still training and equipping activists in October 2011 when he made a nearly fatal mistake. He gave an on-camera interview to a British journalist who was later arrested with the footage on his laptop. Warned by a friend through a Facebook message, Othman turned off his phone, removed its SIM card—a precaution to avoid being tracked—and hid in a friend’s Damascus apartment. He never went home. A month and a half later, at the urging of activists who worried his arrest would compromise their entire network, he escaped across the border to Lebanon. “I had been a source of safety for my friends,” he says. “I didn’t want to become a source of danger.”
 
 
The struggle for Syria has transcended borders. In early 2011, from his office at the University of California at Los Angeles, John Scott-Railton, a 29-year-old graduate student in Urban Planning, joined the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. Scott-Railton, working on a dissertation on how poor communities in Senegal were adapting to climate change, had spent time in Egypt and had close friends there. When revolutionaries in Cairo occupied Tahrir Square, he set his studies aside. Working through his contacts in the country, he helped Egyptians evade Internet censors and get their message out to the world by calling protesters on the phone, interviewing them, and publishing their views on Twitter. Later, when the Arab Spring spread to Libya, he did the same, this time working with Libyans in the diaspora to broaden his reach.

In Syria, Scott-Railton recognized that the task would be different. Once Assad’s government lifted restrictions on the Internet, activists were having little trouble getting their voices heard; graphic videos alleging government atrocities were lighting up Facebook and YouTube. The challenge would be keeping them safe. “If we’re going to talk about how important the Internet has been in the Arab Spring, we need to think about how it also brings a whole new set of vulnerabilities,” says Scott-Railton. “Otherwise, we’re going to be much too optimistic about what can be done.”

The first documented attack in the Syrian cyberwar took place in early May 2011, some two months after the start of the uprising. It was a clumsy one. Users who tried to access Facebook in Syria were presented with a fake security certificate that triggered a warning on most browsers. People who ignored it and logged in would be giving up their user name and password, and with them, their private messages and contacts.

In response, Scott-Railton began nurturing contacts in the Syrian opposition, people like Othman with wide networks of their own. “It wasn’t that different from the strategy I had worked out in Libya: Figure out who was trustworthy and then slowly build up,” he says. In the meantime, he contacted security teams at major American technology companies whom he could alert when an attack was detected. Scott-Railton declined to name specific companies but confirmed he was in touch with security experts at some of the biggest brand names. In the past year and a half, pro-government hackers have successfully targeted Facebook pages, YouTube accounts, and logins on Hotmail, Yahoo! (YHOO), Gmail, and Skype.

Scott-Railton’s involvement in the Syrian cyberwar wasn’t high-tech. Over several months, he set himself up as a bridge between two worlds, passing reports of hacking on to various companies who could investigate attacks on their users, take down bogus websites, and configure browsers to flag suspect sites as potential threats.

For Syrians, the system provided a quick, sure way to limit damage as attempts to break into accounts affiliated with the opposition became more sophisticated. For tech companies, it was an opportunity to address violations as they happened—though those violations have also exposed the vulnerabilities of some of the world’s most popular social networking services.

Facebook, which in 2011 responded to hacking attempts in Tunisia by routing communications through an encrypted server and asking users to identify friends when logging in, wouldn’t comment on what, if anything, the company is doing in Syria. Contacted by Bloomberg Businessweek, a spokesperson provided a statement saying: “Security is a top priority for Facebook and we devote significant resources to helping people protect their accounts and information, wherever they live and whatever the circumstances. … We will respond quickly to reports—whether from formal or informal channels—about worrying and problematic security threats from groups, organizations and, on occasion, from governments.”
 
 
As the war intensified, the cyberattacks waged by pro-government Syrian hackers became more ambitious. In the weeks before his arrest in December 2011, Karim, the young doctor, had begun to suspect his hard drive had been compromised. His Internet bill—which in Syria varies according to the traffic being used—had more than quadrupled, though he still isn’t sure exactly how his computer was infected. He suspects the malware may have been transmitted by a woman using the name Abeer who contacted him on Skype last autumn and sent him photos of herself. Another possibility is a man who sent Karim an Excel spreadsheet and said he could provide monetary support for the revolution.

In prison, Karim’s captors mentioned both people. His interrogators knew about his high Internet bills, as well: “The policeman told me, ‘Do you remember when you were talking to your friend and you told him you had something wrong and paid a lot of money? At that time we were taking information from your laptop.’ ”

Before the Syrian revolution, Karim had never participated in politics. “I would just go to work and then go home,” he says. But the Arab Spring awakened something inside him, and when demonstrators gathered for a second week of major demonstrations, Karim joined them. The first protest he attended was also the first in which the regime deployed the army to crush dissent, killing dozens of demonstrators across the country. Shortly afterward, Karim signed up to man field hospitals, caring for wounded activists. The worst injuries were from snipers, he recalls. “Sometimes people would be shot in the back, and they’d be paralyzed. Sometimes we found bullets in the face, and all the bones in the face were broken. When we found people shot in the abdomen, sometimes we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have the proper equipment.”

When it came to the Internet, Karim was typical of many of his fellow activists: enthusiastic, naive, and all too often complacent where security was concerned. “Sometimes we’d say to each other, ‘If there was no Internet, there would be no revolution,’ ” he says.

Just 18 percent of Syrians use the Internet, and government restrictions along with sanctions by the U.S. and Europe have limited Syrians’ access to updated software and antivirus programs. Karim occasionally used the Tor application recommended by Othman but found the connection too slow for video. A friend in Qatar sent him a link to a secure VPN, but he wasn’t able to download the necessary software.

On Dec. 25, 2011, Karim met with a group of doctors to put the final touches on a plan to better coordinate the opposition’s field hospitals. The next day he spoke with a friend on Skype and agreed to meet him to film a Christmas video he hoped would be a show of unity between faiths. When he left his safe house, the police were waiting for him. They knew where they would find him and where he was going. “Skype was the best way for us, for communication,” he says. “We heard that Skype was very safe and that nobody can hack it, and there is no virus for Skype. But unfortunately, I was the first victim of it.”

In a statement to Bloomberg Businessweek, a spokesperson for Skype, which is owned by Microsoft (MSFT), said, “Much like other Internet communication tools with a very large user base—be it e-mail, IM, or Voip—Skype has been used by persons with malicious intent to trick or manipulate people into following nefarious links. … This is an ongoing, industrywide issue faced by all peer-to-peer software companies. Skype is committed to the safety and security of its users, and we are taking steps to help protect them.”

Karim spent 71 days in Syrian detention before being released on bail pending a military trial. After his release he fled the country, sneaking from village to village until he arrived in Jordan. There he discovered that many other activists had been contacted by the woman named Abeer. A few weeks after his release, he received a message from her on Facebook offering to send him more pictures. He refused.
 
 
In January 2012, less than a month after Karim’s arrest, Othman—by then in Lebanon—came across a laptop belonging to an international aid worker. The worker believed the laptop had been compromised. After making a preliminary analysis, Othman sent an image of the entire hard drive to Scott-Railton. Among the people Scott-Railton reached out to was a dreadlocked New Zealander named Morgan Marquis-Boire, a security engineer at Google (GOOG) in California. In his spare time, Marquis-Boire had begun investigating cyberattacks on opposition figures in the Middle East after being approached by activists who saw him speak at a conference. “I’m a firm believer in the facilitation of freedom of expression on the Internet,” he says. “The censorship that occurs when people are afraid to speak is actually the most powerful type of censorship that’s available.”

Marquis-Boire, 33, wasn’t the first person to analyze the infected hard drive, but his examination was deep and thorough. The laptop, he determined, had been successfully hacked three times in rapid succession. The first piece of malware had arrived on Dec. 26, 2011, during the early hours of Karim’s detention. It had been sent to the computer’s owner through Karim’s Skype account, embedded in the proposal for the coordination of field hospitals he had finalized the night before his arrest.

The malware, DarkComet, was a remote access “trojan.” It allowed its sender to take screenshots of the victim’s computer, monitor her through the video camera, and log what she typed. Every digital move the laptop’s owner made was being recorded—and the reports were being routed back to an IP address in Damascus.

The network Scott-Railton had set up was faced with a new challenge. The people behind the attacks were no longer casting a wide net and waiting to see who they caught. They were specifically targeting revolutionaries such as Karim and his contacts. Security experts at major tech companies can restore access to hacked accounts or issue takedown orders when hackers set up fake versions of their websites. But there’s little they can do for a user whose computer has been captured by hackers.

Photograph by Fabio Bucciarelli/AFP/Getty Images; Dave Caulkin/Getty Images; Photo illustration by Joe Magee

Scott-Railton and his collaborators began to study their opponent. Syrians like Othman with close contacts to the opposition began gathering suspicious files that might contain malware and funneling them to Scott-Railton. He passed them on to Marquis-Boire, who published his findings in blog posts for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy organization based in San Francisco that promotes civil liberties on the Internet. A pattern soon emerged. The attacks used code widely available online. In the case of the DarkComet trojan that had been sent from Karim’s computer, the malware had been developed by a French hacker in his twenties named Jean-Pierre Lesueur who offered it as a free download on his website.

What made the hacks so effective was their deviousness. Malware was discovered in a fake plan to help protesters besieged in the city of Aleppo; in a purported proposal for the formation of a post-revolution government; and on Web pages that claimed to show women being raped by Syrian soldiers.

Whenever possible, the people behind the attacks would use a compromised account to spread the malware further. In April 2012, the Facebook account of Burhan Ghalioun, then the head of the Syrian opposition, was taken over and used to encourage his more than 6,000 followers to install a trojan mocked up to look like a security patch for Facebook.

Scott-Railton’s network allowed antivirus companies to update their software so it would recognize the malware and warn Syrian activists. Once Marquis-Boire identified DarkComet, a group of hackers who went by the name Telecomix began putting pressure on its creator, Lesueur, to take it down. In February 2012, less than a month after the trojan had been discovered, he released a patch that would remove his program from an infected computer. “i was totally shocked to see that the syrian gouv used my tool to spy other people,” he wrote in a typo-laden post on his personal blog. “Since now 4 years i code DarkComet for people that are interested about security, people that wan’t to get an eye on what their childs doing on the internet, for getting an eye to notified employees, to administrate their own machines, for pen testing but NOT AS A WAR WEAPON.”

In July, Lesueur took the program down altogether. The weapon that had been launched from Karim’s computer—and very likely the one that landed him in jail—had been disarmed.
 
 
The cyberwar in Syria rages on. Othman and others like him spend hours fending off attacks on their VPNs. He says he knows of at least two activists who were detained and killed after their computers were undermined. Scott-Railton continues to relay reports of compromised accounts and fake Web pages to contacts in the tech industry. “Every day, I get contacted by Syrians with security concerns,” he says. Marquis-Boire is doing his best to trace the attacks back to their source.

Since Karim’s release from detention and his escape from Syria earlier this year, he has lived in Jordan. When he recently ran a scan on his new computer, he found he had been infected once again. “I receive thousands of e-mails, videos, and requests and images from activists and friends,” he says. “And there are a lot of people who I don’t know who they are.” In July the Syrian Electronic Army, a pro-government group, released what it said were 11,000 user names and passwords of “NATO supporters,” meaning members of the Syrian opposition.

In October, I attempted to contact the Syrians involved in the government’s cyberwar. Before doing so, I changed most of my passwords. I set up two-step verification on my Gmail account, an extra layer of security that makes it harder for hackers to take over an account remotely. I installed the Tor Browser Bundle and updated the WordPress software on my website. And then I dropped a line on Twitter to @Th3Pr0_SEA, an account that describes itself as belonging to the leader of the Special Operations Department of the Syrian Electronic Army, the most visible virtual actor on the government side. @Th3Pr0_SEA wrote back soon after, and we agreed to meet on Google Chat. Minutes later, somebody tried to reset the password of my Yahoo Mail account.

@Th3Pr0_SEA wouldn’t tell me much about himself. Two members of his organization had been kidnapped and murdered by members of the opposition, he said, after posting under their real names on Facebook. He told me he had been a student when the uprising began. When I asked his religion, he answered, “i’m Syrian :)”

Researchers have described the Syrian Electronic Army as a paramilitary-style group working in coordination with the country’s secret services and linked to the Syrian Computer Society, a government organization once headed by Assad himself before he became president. In our chat, @Th3Pr0_SEA denied the connection, repeating the group’s claims that it’s not an official entity and that its membership is unpaid, motivated only by patriotism. When I asked why the group’s website was hosted on servers owned by the Syrian Computer Society, he answered that his group paid for the service. “If we host our website outside of Syria servers, it will get deleted and probably hacked,” he wrote.

Before I finished my interview with @Th3Pr0_SEA, I asked him whether he had been the one who tried to reset my Yahoo password. He denied it. “i think someone saw you,” he said, “when you talked me on twitter.” He also told me, “there is a big surprise from Special Operations Department coming soon, but i can’t tell you anything about it.”

Faris is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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