In Dragon Day – a provocative new movie on release in the US in November – we see the consequences of a “cyber 9/11”. China has attacked the critical infrastructure of the US in a large-scale cyber-attack. The film illustrates one of the dominant fears about cyber-security and cyber-war: a superpower attacking the networked infrastructure that supports all aspects of life in the 21st century.
Some argue that this fictional scenario is unlikely to ever play out in real life because a cyber-war on such a scale would ultimately be too self-destructive in an inter-connected world. Others believe such a cyber-conflict wouldn’t take place because it couldn’t: fears about the fragility and vulnerability of our networked society are overstated – useful scenarios for Hollywood films but not something we should worry about.
But even if complete societal meltdown is not on the horizon, the attacks coming out of Syria over the past few months are redefining the rules of the game. Until now, the use of cyber-expertise to attack others has been the preserve of rich nations – the technological innovators. Take Stuxnet, the most famous incident of this kind. While the perpetrators of the 2010 attack on Iranian nuclear facility have never been confirmed, it is widely believed that the US government was to blame.
Cyber-crime emanates from “shadow economies” all the time, but we see it as just another nuisance of life in the digital age, a “disease of affluence” that can be controlled through greater precaution and awareness.
The conflict in Syria has created uncomfortable political and strategic problems for Barack Obama and David Cameron but it has traversed geopolitical distance in other ways too. “Local” conflicts have long had a “global” dimension through the use of strategies like hijacking planes or kidnapping citizens and while this conflict exhibits all the attributes of the most brutal civil wars of the twentieth century, it has become “global” through the use of digital strategies. The role played by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) challenges our common conception of cyber-security and cyber-war as the terrain of the most “advanced” and “developed”.
The SEA developed spontaneously as a group of Facebook users in 2011, during the early days of the Arab uprisings. Its relationship to the Assad regime is much debated and the SEA denies it is state-sponsored. Either way, it certainly lacks the billions of dollars of investment that goes into cyber-superpower projects elsewhere. As the conflict has unfolded, the SEA has proven to be an active and effective presence in the conflict, using phishing techniques to crack social media accounts, redirect web addresses to its own page and deface other websites. The New York Times has been hit and this week marines.com also fell victim to the group.
A lot of the SEA’s work is nuisance. Defaced websites are usually corrected quickly, hijacked Twitter accounts don’t stay that way for long. While it is annoying for consumers and potentially costly for the companies and organisations targeted, these cyber-attacks are a far way removed from the “missiles” in the form of code that some have envisaged in the age of cyber-war.
But earlier this year those who saw the SEA as an irritation rather than a threat were silenced. The army made its presence felt in a big way by hijacking the Associated Press’ Twitter account and tweeting that President Obama had been injured in an explosion, days after the Boston marathon bombing. As a direct result, the Dow Jones dropped 143 points, temporarily draining $136.5 billion from the US economy.
The “flash crash” was not due to nervous traders but software which used a technique called algorithmic trading. This monitors news feeds and social media in order to trade automatically based on the real world events it sees. It worked perfectly in this case – except there were no explosions at the White House and President Obama was perfectly safe.
This was clearly a limited attack. Ten minutes later, with an apology from the Associated Press, the Dow Jones recovered. The financial wobble was likely to have been an unintended consequence from a typical social media “crack” rather than an actual attack itself. But there is no denying that the SEA proved that one tweet could impact complex financial systems. What this event proved is that poor cyber-security across multiple systems can coalesce into a much bigger problem. This cascade effect is a significant danger because it takes such basic technical know-how and the holes are nearly impossible to plug.
Some of the methods used by the SEA are simple. The attack on the Associated Press, for example, was more a case of social engineering than hacking. The real problem is imperfections in the cyber-security of these complex and interconnected systems. Twitter’s speedy expansion left serious flaws in its security and the Associated Press attack forced the company to accelerate the introduction of two-step verification for accounts. It also forced financial institutions to look at the effectiveness of their algorithmic trading systems, having seen how easily they could be spoofed.
This cascade effect is a genuine threat which is being exploited by diverse groups for strategic reasons (or just for the lulz) – and because it is so easy these attacks are becoming more frequent. The SEA is likely to become a blueprint for cyber “assets” who emerge in conflicts around the world from an increasingly technically proficient population.
This new element of conflict might not result in a “middle ranked” state like Syria launching an attack of the type depicted in Dragon Day but the acceleration of technological change and the rapid growth in know-how on all sides might be leading us towards a world in which “action at a distance” becomes more destructive than ever before.
This in turn could radically disrupt the “great chain of being” that orders the world we live in. William Gibson famously wrote: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” What we see in the conflict in Syria is that the distribution of the “future” is changing the nature of conflict around the world in ways we need to pay attention to. The SEA has warned that more is to come, and it seems it is to be believed.
'The Syrian Electronic Army is rewriting the rules of war' is co-authored by Dr Mark Lacy and Oliver Fitton; PhD Candidate in International Relations, in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University.
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"A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on"
On January 25th 2011 the Egyptian public took to the streets in protest at the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the authoritarian president who had ruled Egypt for thirty years. Eighteen days after protesters began to occupy Tahrir Square, Mubarak left office. The events of 2011 demonstrated the power of revolutionary agency, fostering change in spite of the challenge facing protesters. Yet rather than marking the three year anniversary of the events with celebrations, Egyptians face an uncertain future. As bombs go off in Cairo and violence increases across Egypt, the interim government seeks to remove all trace of the past three years.
As Lucia Ardovini recently noted in her blog post for this site, the events of the past year reflect a descent into Mubarak-era authoritarianism and the extent of tensions within Egypt. In recent months Adly Mansour, the interim Egyptian president, and General Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, the head of the military in Egypt and de facto ruler, have moved closer to removing all remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood’s yearlong rule. On January 14th and 15th, Egyptians voted almost unanimously in favour of a replacement to the 2012 constitution that was written by Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi. This referendum served as a litmus test as to the popularity of the interim government, the post Morsi era and, of Al Sisi himself, who many believe will be Egypt’s next president.¹
Over the past three years, Egypt has experienced high levels of political and social unrest, with increasingly large schisms emerging across the Egyptian population. These schisms reflect the tensions within Egyptian society along with the powerful support bases that groups can draw upon. As many talk of the increasing sectarianism across Egypt, it is pertinent to note that this, like all sectarianisms, is constructed with purpose in mind. While the interim government is fortunate to be able to rely on wealthy supporters in the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia whose desire to see the end of the Brotherhood has been well documented, this financial aid will not continue indefinitely, nor will money be able to appease Egyptians who experienced access to political systems for the first time only two years ago.
Al Sisi and Mansour have overseen a crackdown on protests and dissent across the political and religious spectrum and while this initially targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, the crackdown is much broader in scope. One such effort to prevent dissent was a law that was criticised by 19 Egyptian organisations. The law sought to “to criminalise all forms of peaceful assembly, including demonstrations and public meetings, and gives the state free hand to disperse peaceful gatherings by use of force". The parallels with the authoritarian presidency of Hosni Mubarak are clear; the ‘deep state’ is back, if it ever truly left.
The new constitution has been criticised for protecting and rewarding those responsible for overthrowing Morsi, namely the military, judiciary and police force, increasing their autonomy, even at the expense of the president. Conversely, Islamist groups, including Al Nour, along with other religious faiths have lost political rights, with religiously motivated political action now banned. This reflects a concern at the political power that religious groups possess within Egypt, while also highlighting the desire of those in power to protect their interests. Supporting this, a member of theConstitution Committee suggested that “Once you have burned your mouth on hot soup, you will blow even on yoghurt. That is what has happened with this constitution”.
The actions of Al Sisi and Mansour have attempted to erase all trace of the events of the past three years along with the hope that was born in the 18 days in ‘The Square’ and successful overthrowing of Mubarak. This has also included the arrest of prominent Egyptian academics. Yet after speaking to Egyptian revolutionaries, the words of John F. Kennedy spring to mind: "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death." It is the power of the idea that many cling to, as the last remaining source of hope from the events of January 25th 2011.
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Dr Mark Lacy teaches on our BA Politics and International Relations programme.
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