Online hackers believed to be motivated by loyalty to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made headlines this week by allegedly hacking into several major websites, including Twitter and the New York Times. While this activity is generally identified within minutes and corrrected, the ability of hackers to quickly throw into question the legitimacy of information coming from conventional news outlets makes their activity particularly frightening.
The group of hackers known collectively as the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has staged a number of high profile attacks in recent months, including another recent alleged attack on the Washington Post's website. Their logo appears on the screens of those who have been hacked, along with a defacement message, "Hacked by Syrian Electronic Army."
The hacktivist group then tends to take to social media to seek credit for these high-profile hacks, as they did on Twitter on Tuesday night.
While much about the identities and nature of the group remain unknown, most onlookers believe the group is a collection of young Syrian pro-Assad supporters working under anti-Western political motivations. Writing in Digital Trends Magazine, Francis Bea argues that members of the SEA grew increasingly angry at Western media coverage of Syria's bloody civil war. They are particularly angered, it seems, by the anti-Assad line that continues to make headlines this week with reports the Syrian president is responsible for major chemical weapons on Syrian citizens. The hacktivst collective, the theory goes, aims to attack international social media accounts that report the conflict in this manner in order to damage western trust in anti-Assad narratives.
NowThisNews was able to get some answers from this mysterious group as to its motives and how it selects targets.
The group has allegedly targeted a wide range of of global media outlets in an available list from Digital Trends (ranging from 11 Twitter accounts of the Guardian and E! News, to the Twitter and Facebook of the Qatar Foundation, to the website of Human Rights Watch). The group even targeted Harvard University's home page last Fall. But the prominence of Twitter hacking cases suggests a particularly gaping security vulnerability on this social media platform.
A self-proclaimed leader of the SEA under an anonymous name "The Shadow" recently told interviewers, "We could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria. [The U.S. media is] exploiting good thinking people by pumping reports of a revolution."
Helmi Noman, a digital researcher, recently told CNN that there is a connection between the SEA and Syria's Assad regime. "What we know is that their [former] domain name was registered by the Syrian Computer Society. We looked into the Syrian Computer Society and discovered that it was headed by al-Assad in the 1990s, before he was president. It's hosted on the network of the Syrian government." But such connections have been difficult to prove, and are claims members of the SEA have denied.
On the one hand, their hacktivism tends to be easily spotted and corrected. This New York Times story on U.S. military options for action in Syria, for example, still worked using numeric addresses by side-stepping the SEA's attack on the newspaper's domain name system.
In an earlier example, the SEA was able to hack the Associated Press's Twitter account in April, saying, "Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured," which shook America's economy as the Dow Jones tumbled 145 points and $140 billion in only 90 seconds. The AP was able to quickly recover the account and announce the error as the market corrected itself.
But the success of the hackers to fully remove or deface anti-Assad stories or to more comprehensively take over media platforms doesn't seem to be the organization's goal. Without gaining significant control over content, "The group's sole agenda is to make a mockery of major U.S. news publications," Bea explains, in a sort of childish yet frightening "fun and games" approach to online hacktivism.