As US weighs possible strikes, Syria's largest city goes offline

As the U.S. government continues weighing the possibility of military intervention in Syria, there are reports that the largest city in Syria has lost all internet access. "Aleppo, a city in Northern Syria that has been the site of intense fighting between rebel forces and the Assad regime, and the surrounding area" appear to have gone offline last night/ Andrea Peterson at the WaPo has technical details and context.

Transcript of Secretary of State Kerry’s remarks on Syria, Aug. 30

Today, US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered these remarks at the State Department on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. It seems likely that the US will soon launch air strikes against Syria, in retaliation. [WaPo]. Here's the video. [CSPAN].

Here are the US and UK intel and legal docs on Syria

At CNN.com, the documents released by the United States and United Kingdom which "outline their legal position and a summary of their intellgence assessment on the alleged chemical weapon use by the Syrian government."

Some historical context for America's next bombing campaign

Paul Waldman at The American Prospect points out that nearly every American president eventually bombs something. And on average, we've bombed another nation at least once every 40 months since 1963. "If you're wondering why people all over the world view the United States as an arrogant bully, reserving for itself the right to rain down death from above on anyone it pleases whenever it pleases, well there you go." [via MoJo]

British MPs vote against Syria action

The government was defeated 285 to 272.

Obama: Syria Strike Will Have No Objective

“Let me be clear,” he said in an interview on CNN. “Our goal will not be to effect régime change, or alter the balance of power in Syria, or bring the civil war there to an end. We will simply do something random there for one or two days and then leave.” Andy Borowitz at The New Yorker.

US will initiate missile strikes on Syria 'as early as Thursday' to 'send a message'

Quoting unnamed officials within the Obama administration, NBC reports that a military assault against Syria could be launched “as early as Thursday.” The US is organizing an "international response" to the suspected use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against civilians.

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Death and the Mainframe: How data analysis can help document human rights atrocities

Between 1980 and 2000, a complicated war raged in Peru, pitting the country’s government against at least two political guerilla organizations, and forcing average people to band together into armed self-defense committees.

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How many people have died in the Syrian civil war?

In the fog of war, it's not easy to figure out how many people die. Even in the cleanest combat, accurate records are not really a common military priority. Worse, there are often incentives for one side or the other to play up the death counts (or play them down), alter the picture of who is doing the killing and who is dying, and provide evidence that a conflict is getting better (or worse).

All of that creates a mess for outside observers who want to see accurate patterns in the chaos — patterns that can help us understand whether an evenly matched war has turned into a bloodbath, or a genocide. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group is an organization that takes the messy, often conflicting, information about deaths in a warzone and tries to make sense of it. Today, they released an updated version of a January report on documented killings in the Syrian civil war.

They say that there were 92,901 documented deaths between March 2011 and April 2013. That number is extremely high, and tragic. But the number alone is maybe not the most important thing the data is telling us.

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Anatomy of a state-sponsored phishing attack: how the Syrian Electronic Army hacked The Onion

As I blogged earlier this week, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked The Onion's Twitter account and used it to post a bunch of dumb messages attacking Israel, the US, and the UN. Now, the Onion's IT administrators have posted a detailed account of how Syrian hackers used a series of staged and careful phishing attacks to escalate from a single naive user's email credentials to the password for the Onion's social media accounts.

Once the attackers had access to one Onion employee’s account, they used that account to send the same email to more Onion staff at about 2:30 AM on Monday, May 6. Coming from a trusted address, many staff members clicked the link, but most refrained from entering their login credentials. Two staff members did enter their credentials, one of whom had access to all of our social media accounts.

After discovering that at least one account had been compromised, we sent a company-wide email to change email passwords immediately. The attacker used their access to a different, undiscovered compromised account to send a duplicate email which included a link to the phishing page disguised as a password-reset link. This dupe email was not sent to any member of the tech or IT teams, so it went undetected. This third and final phishing attack compromised at least 2 more accounts. One of these accounts was used to continue owning our Twitter account.

At this point the editorial staff began publishing articles inspired by the attack. The second article, Syrian Electronic Army Has A Little Fun Before Inevitable Upcoming Deaths At Hands Of Rebels, angered the attacker who then began posting editorial emails on their Twitter account. Once we discovered this, we decided that we could not know for sure which accounts had been compromised and forced a password reset on every staff member’s Google Apps account.

I'm impressed by the cleverness of triggering a "password reset" message from the IT team, then sending out fake password-reset messages to users who aren't on the IT team to get them to click on yet another link. Most of the recommendations the IT team make are pretty bland ("educate your users"), but these two reccos are good:

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No internet for Syria

Nicole Perlroth: "Syria’s access to the Internet was cut on Tuesday. The most likely culprit, security researchers said, was the Syrian government." [NYT]

Onion gets hacked by Syrian propagandists, responds with funny article


The Onion got hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army, who proceeded to send out a bunch of tweets that could have been mistaken for actual Onion tweets making fun of the sort of thing that Syrian propagandists would tweet if they hacked the Onion's Twitter (see after the jump for the full list). But no, they actually did get hacked.

The Onion responded by putting up a post called Syrian Electronic Army Has A Little Fun Before Inevitable Upcoming Deaths At Hands Of Rebels, which matches the Assadists' bluster and is much funnier:

DAMASCUS, SYRIA—After hacking into The Onion’s Twitter account earlier today, members of the Syrian Electronic Army confirmed that the organization simply wanted to have a little fun before soon dying at the hands of rebel forces. “We figured that before they bust in here and execute every single one of us, we might as well have a good time and post some silly tweets about Israel from a major media outlet’s feed,” said a spokesperson from the pro-Assad group, adding that he and his cohorts “had a few good laughs” and are now fully prepared for their painful and undoubtedly horrific deaths in the coming days. “I mean, we definitely don’t have much time left, so we thought, hey, let’s just enjoy ourselves before getting blown away by rockets, decapitated, beaten to death, or hung during public executions. Why not, right?” At press time, violent screams and pleas for mercy were reportedly overheard as rebel troops broke into the Syrian Electronic Army’s hideout.

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Where does Assad's online army come from?

Syria's brutal Assad regime has damned few allies left in the world, but one of them, Russia, is governed by a dirty-tricking ruling elite who've made a science out of manipulating Internet opinion. This may explain the weird, stilted pro-Assad astroturf army who appear in any discussion of the regime's atrocities to explain that it's all a Jewish conspiracy.

And on like that. SyriaTribune maintains a YouTube channel stocked with clips from — surprise — Vladimir Putin’s Russia Today portraying Assad as the victim of a bloody-minded western conspiracy. A self-described French intellectual named Thierry Meyssan — author of 9/11 The Big Lie — reveals that TV images purporting to show Assad’s massacres of civilians were prepared by the CIA, along with White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, and “aims at demoralizing the Syrians in order to pave the way for a coup d’etat.” The #FakeRevolution hashtag on Instagram provides pictorial, meme-filled boosterism for Bashar, like a screengrab from Time’ app kindly telling user mybubb1e to stop voting for Assad for Person of the Year or Hillary Clinton with flames shooting out of her eyes and ear, courtesy of Bashar4Ever.

Meet the Assadosphere, the Online Defenders of Syria’s Butcher [Spencer Ackerman/Wired]

Homemade Syrian rebel-tank with gamepad gun controller

The unfortunately named "Sham II" is a homemade Syrian rebel tank whose main gun is directed with an off-brand video-game thumbstick/gamepad controller. Targetting is via webcam and cheap flat-panel display.

The Sham II, an updated version of a previously made Sham I light infantry by Syrian fighters from the al Ansar Brigade, cost approximately $10,000 (not including the gun), according to one rebel fighter whose brother had designed and built it. The vehicle is reportedly covered with steel plating approximately 2.5 centimeters thick. However, the Sham II is admittedly underprepared to defend against rocket-propelled grenades or tank fire. Rebels claimed the Sham II would soon be ushered into a combat role by members of al Ansar's Saad Benmoaz battalion near Aleppo.

Syrian rebels debut homemade fighting vehicle [Threat Matrix] (via /.)

Why dictators (don't) shut down the Internet

Warren Ellis's Vice column, "How to Shut Down Internets," looks at the phenomenon of Middle Eastern dictators shutting off their nation's Internet during moments of extremis. Here's the money graf:

There are two reasons why these shutdowns happen in this manner. The first is that these governments wish to black out activities like, say, indiscriminate slaughter. That much is obvious. The second is sometimes not so obvious. These governments intend to turn the internet back on. Deep down, they believe they will be in their seats the next month and have the power to turn it back on. They believe they will win. It is the arrogance of power: they take their future for granted, and need only hide from the world the corpses it will be built on.

For me, this raises a couple of much more interesting questions:

1. Why would a basket-case dictator even allow his citizenry to access the Internet in the first place? (A: Because the national economy can't function without it)

2. Why not shut down the Internet the instant trouble breaks out? (A: Because it would be immensely unpopular, even among your sympathizers; also, see 1.)

Update: Bruce Schneier adds: "The reason is that the Internet is a valuable tool for social control. Dictators can use the Internet for surveillance and propaganda as well as censorship, and they only resort to extreme censorship when the value of that outweighs the value of doing all three in some sort of totalitarian balance."

How to Shut Down Internets