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Hackers Intervene in Syria

A hacker collective, Telecomix, have lent a hand to Syrians fighting against the power of Damascus, following the success of similar operations in Egypt and Tunisia.

by Julie Gommes On October 4, 2011

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On the night of September 4 at 2.53 am, KheOps (the pseudonym of a politically active hacker) pushed a button, as he modestly puts it, and rerouted the Internet in Syria. Syrian Internet users were automatically redirected to a website that explained how and why to get around governmental censorship, and to protect their online communication.

We needed to get across our message. We put it on their screens by surprise and made it impossible to avoid, and for a long enough time that they had no choice but to read it.

Four times that week they scaled the walls of Syrian censorship. ‘They’ are Telecomix, a hacker collective that had previously shown up during the Arab Spring, helping Tunisian and Egyptian internet users to circumvent ‘cyber-censors’.

Internet users would connect themselves to the Telecomix IRC channel, an online discussion forum. Sometimes they would just pass through, sometimes they left a few comments. “What would always come up was the fear of Mukhabarats (Syrian State Security), and (people) asking whether or not we were Israeli. As much as I understand (their fear of Mukhabarats), I don’t understand the rest… I still don’t understand why,” wonders KheOps, one of the most active hackers in the project (his moving testimony is available on Reflets.info). Even more than offering advice on security or encryption, he found his role was often simply to reassure.

Once upon a time there was #OpSyria

All of this didn’t start, however, with the simple push of a button. It’s the Syrian regime’s lack of transparency that led Telecomix to act on Syria:

Generally speaking we didn’t know what was going on in Syria. The few images that filtered out showed us that what was going on was worse than (what happened) in Egypt. Today, there are 10 of us providing technical support for an entire country.

“We began with about 20 volunteers in the US, Europe and the Arab world,” recalls KheOps. The initial idea was to provide a kind of tool box that would allow revolutionary Syrians to improve their anonymity and online security. First they had to write in English, then rewrite, translate into Arabic, create pages, face Arabic punctuation problems, copy-paste things that sometimes wouldn’t work as expected…not to mention the technical work. It took about a month of 10 people’s elbow grease to produce what was displayed on Syrian computer screens.

On the evening of August 11 they sent 6,000 emails into Syria containing security advice, information on state monitoring and an introduction from Telecomix itself. The message was quickly posted on the “official” Facebook group of the revolution. The first contacts had been established.

Now I’m secured, thanks to them. It’s because I saw this message that I went on the IRC. That first time, they welcomed and guided me. I learned a lot about the ways in which the government spies on my connections. I trust the whole team. These are special people with a high degree of humanity and responsibility. I am also anonymous online, I’m less afraid to connect.

Muhammad, a Syrian national, isn’t the only one. His new anonymous friends on the web are giving him advice on using his phone, on wire tapping – simple techniques to use everyday.

A game of cat and mouse

The message displayed when you connect to the IRC server is explicit: “Public channel: no names, places, personal info.” There are always Arabic speaking hackers there, ready to lend a hand. They are helping Syrians exchange information among themselves, to get images and videos out of the country, and all of it securely. Underneath the surface lies a colossal effort by those on both sides of the censorship wall.

Today, the group of activists united under the Telecomix banner were able to get into contact with a few dozen people. KheOps is wary. “Nothing is ever completely certain. It’s a game of cat and mouse.” They work non-stop to provide security, circumvent censorship walls, to welcome and reassure through the IRC. Everything is accomplished through teamwork, which seems to surprise him sometimes. “There are people who don’t know each other, from different cultures who are working together for a common goal, a shared ideal.” And new roles are being born. Muhammad will be a “journalist covering the reconstruction of the country” or…a hacker.

Today, I use an e-mail address that they created for me. They helped me publish videos on the internet and above all they gave me access to a place that I could store my data and that doesn’t stay on my computer. For my part I teach these techniques to my friends and I burn CDs with useful programs.

Is the inverse possible? Could KheOps set foot in Syria? “It’s been more than two months that I’ve been working on the operation and with everything that I’ve read, with the people that I’ve been in contact with, and everything that I’ve learned… I sometimes have the impression that I’m there.” But it’s only an impression.

Muhammad, who we contacted by phone, talks about his city in the centre of the country. “It’s the calm before the storm. It’s full of Shabiha (an undercover militia close to the regime), we see them everywhere. Certain offices where I worked have been reopened, but we’re not stupid. A huge campaign of arresting activists is happening at the moment.”

One of Muhammad’s best friends was arrested on August 31. He was supposed to stay in prison for a week “like everybody else”. He still hasn’t reappeared.

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Photo Credit: Flickr CC Gwenaël Piaser, james.gordon6108

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