President al-Assad appears to have encouraged hacking attacks. (AP)
President al-Assad appears to have encouraged hacking attacks. (AP)

Syria’s Assad gives tacit OK to online attacks on press

On Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave his third public address on the vast unrest that has roiled his nation. Reporters described him as nervous. He, the reporters, or perhaps both, may have been thinking about the significance of speech No. 3. Both Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were overthrown shortly after they delivered their third addresses on tumult in their countries. My interest, however, was on a sentence buried near the end of his address. Here’s the official translation:

The army consists of the brothers of every Syrian citizen, and the army always stands for honour and dignity. Young people have an important role to play at this stage, because they have proven themselves to be an active power. There is the electronic army which has been a real army in virtual reality. There were those who took part in the blood donation campaign, and other initiatives. I met a number of youth delegations from different sections of society and found that Syrian youth enjoy a high sense of patriotism, and this is self-evident because they belong to this country.

Those bolded italics include a direct reference to the Syrian Electronic Army, a pro-government hacking group. On Twitter, the group thanked al-Assad for the mention, and went on to say on its Facebook page:

Our message to the news agencies and reporters: If you have a shortage of professionals to report the correct news … the hordes of the Syrian Electronic Army will not be forgiving with you.

The statement sits next to a screenshot of the army’s most frequent and mildest tactic: encouraging followers to saturate online forums with pro-Assad commentary. The group has taken such actions on American and French politicians’ sites, as well as news sites such as that of the BBC.

But the army also claims responsibility for more invasive attacks, including defacing websites by exploiting security holes. Their attacks appear aimed more at the lower-hanging fruit of unsecured sites rather those who write critically about Syrian affairs: Past targets have included local town councils in England, Israeli pizza shops, and Australian window sellers.

Nonethless, to my knowledge this is the first time a head of state has explicitly approved of such actions. Governments are usually careful to distance themselves from nationalistic hacking groups, even if they tacitly permit it through lack of law enforcement. By mentioning the Electronic Army, al-Assad is signaling his support of computer sabotage and vigilante censorship in the name of his country. At least, that is how his online supporters are likely to interpret his words.