Hacktivism for Syria

A new form of activism – hacktivism – is aiding the Syrian opposition in its struggle against the government.

Support for Syria at protest in Turkey
The hacktivist group ‘Anonymous’ posted instructions on how to use anonymising services on the internet such as TOR [REUTERS]

A graphic: in the shape of Syria, populated with tiny individuals, each one representative of one of 2,316 individuals killed between February and the end of August by authorities.  A caption: “2,316 reasons why Assad is finished.”  A note: “This does not include the names of thousands of detainees and missing persons suspected of being killed. The truth will remain unknown until after the fall of the regime.”

This is the content of a defacement conducted this past weekend by the hacking collective Anonymous across several websites of the Syrian government, including the sites of seven Syrian cities. Anonymous perpetrated a similar defacement last months against the Syrian Ministry of Defence, resulting in a retaliatory attack by Syria’s Electronic Army.

A distributed network

Anonymous skyrocketed to notoriety last year when, following the denial of service from several American companies – such as PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard – the collective launched a series of DDoS (or distributed denial of service) attacks on the companies’ websites, resulting in periods of downtime.

Fourteen individuals were arrested for their alleged participation in the attacks on PayPal.

The attacks conducted in support of the Syrian opposition – and earlier this year, in support of Tunisian protesters – have mostly been of a different variety. Whereas a DDoS attack renders a site unavailable for a period of time, a defacement is an attack that changes the visual appearance of a site. While DDoS attacks have been likened by some, such as Evgeny Morozov, to sit-ins, and by others, to lockdowns, a defacement is not unlike its real life equivalent: it requires some clean-up, but is nonetheless a temporary measure designed to draw attention to a political cause.

These attacks are both strategies in what has become known as “hacktivism,” a strategy of direct digital action. Biella Coleman, an assistant professor at New York University who studies these movements, has noted that they have emerged organically, “[taking] not to the streets where protest activity traditionally unfolds, but to the digital agora to act on their own accord, to loudly assert their opinion on a matter, and to act directly against those actors they felt were acting unjustly.”

The varied targets and methods of these attacks serve as a reminder that Anonymous is – as it has always claimed to be – both decentralized and leaderless, contrary to the mainstream media narrative, which often paints the movement as a group of disaffected, even privileged youth. Furthermore, the movement is international, evidenced by their support of disparate causes not only in Tunisia in Syria, but also in Spain, Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere.

Changing the face of activism?

Online methods of protest, such as DDoS attacks and defacements, may be changing the face of activism, or at least offering an online component through which global supporters of a cause can participate. Legalities aside, the fact of the matter is that many Anonymous members and supporters view hacktivist activities as legitimate means of protest or dissent. 

Support may spread beyond participants: a recent analysis of online comments, conducted by NYU’s journalism department webmaster Tim Libert, found broad support in some cases for “online vigilantism.”  Libert’s analysis found less approval for hacks targeting individuals than those targeting corporations.

Therein lies the rub: While attacks on the Syrian government are roundly cheered, those that expose sensitive information about citizens (such as the recent hack of San Franciscos BART customer site, that resulted in the disclosure of 2,000 usernames and passwords) may be viewed as more malicious.

Furthermore, attacks that target “innocent” sites misconstrue intent further. Included amongst the Syrian government sites hacked last weekend was that of the Syrian Red Crescent, whose members have been targeted by the regime while seeking to provide medical assistance to injured demonstrators. That defacement, though probably unintentional, sparked ire amongst segments of the online Syrian community.  Syrian activist Anas Qtiesh called the defacements “a wasted effort,” suggesting that the hacktivists – who included in their defacements a guide to online safety – would be better off providing technical help to opposition sites.

Though the defacements conducted this weekend did include a link to a page containing tips for online safety – including the use of Tor, and HTTPS – the pages remained up for only a few short hours before their administrators became aware of the situation and took them down, minimizing the impact such tips might have.

Sign of solidarity or a wasted effort?

Still, there are many who see the defacements as a sign of solidarity by actors who otherwise feel helpless in the face of the real-life conflict in Syria.  Legalities once again notwithstanding, neither side is necessarily wrong.  These visual statements are seen and reported upon widely and can raise awareness about the situation on the ground. 

At the same time, in light government surveillance and interference with social networks, Qtiesh’s recommendation that solidarity activists could “use their bandwidth to provide TOR bridges, [or] help opposition sites patch their security vulnerabilities” is dead on.  Defacements may help raise awareness, but they do little to provide help to activists. 

The hacking community would therefore be well-advised to consider channeling their efforts toward devising and disseminating solutions that would keep Syria’s online activist community safe from harm.

Jillian York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.