Are Syria’s pro-Assad hackers up to something more nefarious?


A screenshot of the @AFPphoto Twitter account, which was hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army in late February.

Hackers who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have claimed yet another target in their virtual war for Syria's hearts and minds: the Twitter and Facebook accounts of the Qatar Foundation, which began posting unusual messages around 2:00 a.m. on Friday.

The anonymous hackers, who call themselves the "Syrian Electronic Army," have hacked dozens of Web sites and social media accounts over the past two years, including the pages of President Obama, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Amnesty International. But as Syria's conflict -- real and virtual -- drags on, hacks like this become less and less newsworthy.

So what, exactly, does the Syrian Electronic Army hope to achieve?

Some believe the answer may be something more insidious than the group's stated purpose of "show[ing] the world the truth about the 'Syria Revolution.'"

Hacks like this are good for publicity  -- the SEA even released a dramatically soundtracked video of the hack -- but they don't have much staying power. In the case of the Qatar Foundation, the offending tweets had been deleted within six hours.

The Post's James Ball has suggested that pro-government hackers have actually begun acting as a sort of quasi-intelligence unit, "using the Internet to uncover members of the opposition" by advertising fake Facebook and Skype software that is embedded with spyware.

One malicious link, circulated on Syrian Twitter last year, purported to lead to a "fascinating video clip showing an attack on Syrian regime." It actually coaxed Facebook users to give up their usernames and passwords, reports The Information Warfare Monitor.

It's unclear what might become of those names afterward. As Jared Keller detailed in a lengthy Atlantic examination of the group last August, the SEA has denied any formal affiliation with the Syrian regime -- though there are vague, circumstantial hints that could suggest otherwise. Assad has a background in computing and once explicitly referenced his "electronic army." And the group's Web site was registered by the Syrian Computer Society, which Assad once ran.

In either case, this latest Twitter hack is a reminder that the Internet has opened many new fronts for battle.

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (tinyletter.com/cdewey)

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Caitlin Dewey · March 1, 2013