Snowden claims you should blame the NSA for a 2012 Syrian Internet outage, not Assad


Edward Snowden worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency. (AP Photo/ Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, File)

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden says the NSA was responsible for a 2012 Syrian Internet outage, in a new profile published Wednesday by Wired:

One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO — a division of NSA hackers — had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead — rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet — although the public didn't know that the US government was responsible.

The claim here seems pretty thinly sourced, relying on the hearsay of another member of the intelligence community. Snowden does not claim to have documents to back up the story, although in the same article implies he hadn't read through all of the information he secreted out of government computer systems -- so it's always possible more substantial evidence to back up the story might emerge. The NSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Internet traffic experts also suggest it would be difficult to validate the story from the outside. Doug Madory, a senior analyst at Renesys who has meticulously monitored global Internet traffic over the past several years, says they did see outages in Syria in 2012. But he says that the bricking of a server in the way Snowden describes would be almost indistinguishable from a router going offline for some other reason.

"If they caused some sort of corruption to the router, without a really detailed forensic analysis of the memory it would likely just look like a router melting down or crashing," Madory says.

But Madory also notes that Syria has been plagued by outages throughout its bloody civil war, including sporadic outages that are hard to explain. "Actually, even in the past couple of weeks there have been brief outages of less than an hour each Sunday in a row," he says.

In some cases, those outages have appeared to only affect parts of the country primarily in rebel hands or have come at times that seem beneficial to the Syrian regime – leading many experts and media outlets to speculate that supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were intentionally cutting off access or that misfired rockets from either side might be the culprit.

Snowden’s comments offer an alternative theory with potentially more dramatic geopolitical implications on at least one of the outages, but taking them at face value means relying on the word of one observer. The real problem with the narratives around Syria’s Internet woes may be that  it is remarkably hard to provide specific attribution when something goes wrong with technical infrastructure in a conflict zone. When the Internet is turned into a battlefield, it's often hard to pinpoint who is doing what.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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