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Twitter-hacking Syrian Electronic Army: How much state support does it have?

The Twitter hacks by the Syrian Electronic Army – the most recent hit The Guardian – reflect a shift toward disseminating propaganda and attacking Syria’s perceived enemies in the media. 

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Still, the SEA has steadfastly denied on its website any links to the Syrian regime, portraying itself as just a group of self-organized volunteers.

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“We are a group of enthusiastic Syrian youths who could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria, and this distortion is carried out by many Facebook pages that deliberately work to spread hatred and sectarian intolerance between the peoples of Syria to fuel the uprising,” the group’s description says on its website.

Distancing itself is not surprising, the researchers say.

“The state needs this distance so that it cannot be held legally, politically, or even financially responsible for the SEA's activities,” Noman writes. “On the other hand, I won't be surprised if the Syrian institutions at some point defend their support [for] the SEA, arguing that their activities come in the context of a legitimate cyberwar. In fact, that is how the local media is portraying them in its celebratory reports which I have been looking at.”

The SEA has shifted from defacing political and mostly apolitical websites to targeting the media, which it perceives as hostile to the Syrian regime. The SEA, for instance, has not targeted "friendly" Russian or Iranian media, observers say. The group also likes media attention, and compromising the online presence of media outlets amplifies their exposure to the media, they agree.

“Basically they want to become famous to tell their story to the international community,” says Mr. Baiazy. “To do this, they have to catch attention. So they target, for example, the Twitter account for Reuters. Believe it or not, they actually are trying to leave a positive impression about Syria.”

Baiazy, who was imprisoned in Syria in 2011 and interrogated about his online activities, says those questioning him were very young and barely computer literate. If so, it remain a question about the far more sophisticated actors also said to be part of the Syrian Electronic Army, which has been systematically and clandestinely luring opposition sympathizers with tainted video links in e-mail, fake Skype encryption tools, and tainted online documents.

Those hackers believed to be allied to Syria's government have deployed a fairly sophisticated array of powerful spyware with names like DarkComet, backdoor.bruet, and Blackshades. Available on the Internet, these malware are used to infiltrate the personal computers of opposition figures and rights activists and send back information on their friends and contacts as well as passwords, cybersecurity experts say.

Also of note, The Guardian reports that defectors from inside the SEA claim many in the organization moved last year from Damascus to a secret base in Dubai funded by Assad's billionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who controls it.

Pro-Assad activists are said to receive $500 to $1,000 for attacks on major Western targets – a huge sum for most Syrians, The Guardian reported.


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