Syria is reconnected to the Internet, for better or worse

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 1, 2012

From The News Desk

Today, on what would have been the third day of darkness, Syria has been re-connected to the Internet. Both CloudFlare and Renesys report that Syrian IP addresses have resurfaced after a complete blackout on Thursday believed to be caused by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince, who described the blackout of Syria's Internet as severing the bridges and erasing all of the maps leading into the country, says that it is "impossible to tell" if the Syrian government has compromised its citizens' connections. Based on previous reports from Bloomberg Businessweek, the Telegraph, and the New York Times, some form of tampering sounds likely.

In a piece titled "Hackers of Damascus," Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Stephan Faris chronicled the ongoing cyber war between the Free Syrian Army and al-Assad's regime, spinning a tale of compromised hard drives and comprehensive logging of rebels' activities. The Syrian government used seemingly safe links and presumably false Facebook profiles to "trick" rebels into downloading monitoring software onto their computers, allowing al-Assad's regime to survey and apprehend those loyal to the FSA's cause.

Though there are methods that would allow rebels and journalists reporting on the conflict to access the Internet, including virtual private networks (VPNs) and the so-called "darknet," these connections are often limited in ability and can be unreliable. Faris reported that one rebel gave up on Tor, an "open network" connection that offers anonymity tools, after discovering that the connection was too slow to upload and share video.

The Free Syrian Army used satellite Internet, mobile data, and Skype to replace the lost landline Internet and phone connections. The Times says that these tools have "allowed the rebels to continue to communicate almost entirely via Skype with little interruption, despite the blackout." In the same report, however, a number of experts told the Times that they wouldn't trust Skype's peer-to-peer network for sensitive communications -- a sentiment which echoes the Bloomberg Businessweek report on Skype's limitations.

The use of mobile and satellite data could also be a danger to the activists, as al-Assad's forces could (and have) trace these connections and use them as a rebel-supplied targeting system. This tactic was responsible for the death of the Sunday Times' Marie Colvin, who was reporting on the conflict in February when she was killed during an attack meant to "kill any journalist who set foot on Syrian soil".

In other words, al-Assad's regime has successfully turned the Internet into a double-edged sword capable of harming, both indirectly and directly, the opposition, whether they're connected or not. In cases where access to the Internet has been cut off, as it was on Thursday and Friday, the government can use the blackout to stifle reports of attacks and hamstring the rebel's communications. When the Internet is available, however, al-Assad's forces have proven themselves capable of "poisoning the apple," as it were.

Perhaps the greatest example of the "Internet as poisoned apple" metaphor comes from China, home of the Great Firewall and the 50-Cent Party. (50-Cent refers to currency, not the walking target-slash-rapper whose candy shop appears to have gone out of business.) The Chinese government has effectively cut China off from the rest of the Web and employed an army whose only job is to steer discussion on political networks along a pre-approved path.

While it is possible to sneak past China's restrictions with VPNs, PandoDaily reporter Hamish McKenzie has experienced firsthand how frustrating this can be. He would often flood our Yammer feeds or inboxes with request to handle an image or upload a story to WordPress, citing a glacially slow Internet connection that would often hiccup at the least opportune moment.

This conflict is being fought by code and software just as much as it is being fought with spent rounds and explosives. The Internet, often cited as a tool for democracy and liberation, has proven to be just as – if not more – effective in al-Assad's hands as it has in the Free Syrian Army's. Being able to connect to the rest of the world is important, but the development should be welcomed with a spoonful of skepticism and a wary eye.

Evgeny Morozov, author of "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom," has argued this point before. In a talk at the RSA, Morozov laid the smack down on the idea that the Internet or other forms of technology are inherently democratic or will always be used to enforce democratic notions.

"We have somewhat of a myth that authoritarian dictators and leaders fear technology," Morozov said. "That's not the case. Pretty much across the board, authoritarian leaders are actually actively engaging with technology and computers." Technology, he argued, rarely served one side or the other.

Technology, like rocket-propelled grenades, .50-caliber rounds, and a tank engine, is apolitical. The Internet, were it capable of thought (don't worry, we'll get there, Skynet), wouldn't give a flying byte if it were used to transmit videos of unicorns or facilitating the so-called "cyber Pearl Harbor." This basic truth has played itself out in numerous ways, from Twitter's willingness to keep the Israel Defense Force's live-Tweeting its attack against Hamas to Google refusing to pull a contentious anti-Muslim video from its YouTube service.

Much like the weapons listed above, the Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for both sides of the conflict. That it has returned to Syria is a mixed bag; while journalists will be able to report on the battle for the country and keep the world informed of its goings-on, the Internet, especially if it has been compromised by al-Assad's forces, is as deadly as it is necessary.