Investigating A Cyberwar

Investigating A Cyberwar by Juliana Ruhfus.

From the post:

Editor’s Note: As the Syrian civil war has played out on the battlefields with gunshots and mortars, a parallel conflict has been fought online. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a pro-Assad government group of hackers, has wielded bytes and malware to obtain crucial information from opponents of the Assad regime. The extracted information has led to arrests and torture of dissidents. In this interview, GIJN’s Eunice Au talks to Al Jazeera’s Juliana Ruhfus about the methodology and challenges of her investigation into the SEA and the process of transforming the story into an online game.

How did the idea for a documentary on the SEA come about? Who was part of your investigative team and how long did it take?

I had the idea for the film when I came across a report called “Behind Syria’s Digital Frontline,” published by a company called FireEye, cybersecurity analysts who had come across a cache of 30,000 Skype conversations that pro-Assad hackers had stolen from anti-Assad fighters. The hack provided a unique insight into the strategic intelligence that had been obtained from the Skype conversations, including Google images plans that outlined the battle at Khirbet Ghazaleh and images of missiles which the rebels were trying to purchase.

The fascinating thing was, it also shed light on how the hack was carried out. Pro-Assad hackers had created female avatars who befriended fighters on the front line by telling them how much they admired them and eventually asked to exchange photos. These images were infected with malware which proved devastating once downloaded. Computers in the field are shared by many fighters, allowing the hackers to spy on a large number of targets at once.

When I read the report I had the Eureka moment that I wait for when I am looking for a new idea: I could visualize the “invisible” cyberwar story and, for the first time ever, I really understood the crucial role that social engineering plays in hacking, that is the hacker’s psychological skill to get someone to click on an infected link.

I then shot the film together with director Darius Bazargan. Ozgur Kizilatis and Alexander Niakaris both did camera work and Simon Thorne was the editor. We filmed in London, Turkey, and France, and all together the production took just under three months.
… (emphasis in original)

C-suite level material but quite good, if a bit heavy-handed in its support for rebel forces in Syria. I favor the foxes over the hounds as well but prefer a more balanced approach to the potential of cyberwarfare.

Cyberweapons have the potential to be great equalizers with conventional forces. Punishing the use or supplying of cyberweapons, as Juliana reports here, is more than a little short-sighted. True, the Assad regime may have the cyber advantage today, but what about tomorrow? Or other governments?

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