All Tech Considered
3:32 pm
Wed August 28, 2013

Outage Summer: What To Know About The Syrian Electronic Army

Originally published on Wed August 28, 2013 5:39 pm

In the latest hacking that brought down The New York Times on Tuesday, evidence points to the activist group of hackers known as the Syrian Electronic Army. This group also took out The Washington Post briefly last week and has used phishing attacks to take control of NPR.org and other national news organizations in previous months. The Washington Post notes:

"Several news Web sites, including The Washington Post, were affected by a breach at the third-party content provider Outbrain, which redirected some visitors to sites promoting the online activist group, the Syrian Electronic Army."

You may recall The Times just suffered a two-hour outage earlier this month, but a spokeswoman blamed that on an internal error and not a "malicious external attack," which is how she described today's incident.

So What Is The Syrian Electronic Army?

The SEA is a group of anonymous computer hackers who support embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. The group seems to have emerged during the rise of anti-regime protests in Syria in the spring of 2011. While Assad has a background in computing, "the group's formal ties to the administration are unclear," The Post reports.

Infosecurity Magazine did note, however, that the group's official website was registered by the Syrian Computer Society, and Reuters reported that the Syrian Computer Society is "a group now widely believed to have been something of a precursor to the 'Syrian Electronic Army.' "

Biggest "Hits"

The SEA has been hacking social media accounts associated with major news organizations and human rights organizations. It successfully hacked the Associated Press' Twitter account in April and falsely tweeted that the White House was bombed and that President Obama was injured. That tweet sent the stock market spinning, briefly losing $136 billion in value. (On Tuesday, the SEA reportedly hacked Twitter's registry accounts and altered contact details and domain name server information, The Next Web said.)

Targets

Targets seem to fall into three categories: media properties, communications companies and political activists in Syria. Among media targets, prominent names are on the list of SEA victims. They include the AP, BBC, NPR, Human Rights Watch, Al-Jazeera, Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Saudi-based broadcaster Al-Arabiya, Harvard University and a number of Twitter accounts associated with these organizations.

Communications companies like Twitter, and previously, Viber, a free VoIP and text messaging service, have been targeted. But, as Reuters notes, the most important targets of the SEA are likely inside Syria:

"The true priority for the real computer experts of both the government and opposition, most believe, will be the cat and mouse game between government surveillance systems and the opposition networks they are trying to track.

"For Assad's opponents, evading government detection has long been a matter of life and death. Autocratic governments around the world, specialists say, have put considerable effort into tightening their Internet surveillance on potential dissidents since last year's 'Arab spring' ousted rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

" 'The primary target of SEA is certainly their own citizens,' said Alexander Klimburg, cyber security expert and fellow at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs."

Motivations

The SEA spreads political propaganda supportive of Assad and his regime. When the group hacked Reuters, for example, it posted a series of tweets linking to a pro-government cartoon. When the group attacked NPR in April, this statement appeared on the SEA's Twitter page, an account that is now suspended:

"We will not say why we attacked @NPR ... They know the reason and that enough #SEA #Syria."

As our Two-Way blogger Mark Memmott noted, another message read, "We hope that NPR got our message #Syria."

Timing

These attacks come as U.S. leaders ramp up their language about how Syria should be held accountable for chemical attacks on its people.

"While the SEA frequently makes attacks that aren't particularly clear in their intention, others have clearly targeted tools that are used throughout the Middle East by rebels," writes technology site The Verge.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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