Syrian Electronic Army: A Brief Look at What Businesses Need to Know

The Syrian Electronic Army attacked again this week, compromising the websites of the New York Times, Twitter, the Huffington Post and others.

Political hacking isn’t new.  Hackers were breaking into systems for political reasons long before commerce and criminals discovered the Internet.  Over the years, we’ve seen U.K. vs. Ireland, Israel vs. Arab states, Russia vs. its former Soviet republics, India vs. Pakistan and U.S. vs. China.

There was a big one in 2007, when the government of Estonia was attacked in cyberspace following a diplomatic incident with Russia. It was hyped as the first cyberwar, but the Kremlin denied any Russian government involvement. The only individuals positively identified were young ethnic Russians living in Estonia.

Poke at any of these international incidents, and what you find are kids playing politics.  The Syrian Electronic Army doesn’t seem to be an actual army.  We don’t even know if they’re Syrian.  And—to be fair—I don’t know their ages.  Looking at the details of their attacks, it’s pretty clear they didn’t target the New York Times and others directly.  They reportedly hacked into an Australian domain name registrar called Melbourne IT, and used that access to disrupt service at a bunch of big-name sites.

We saw this same tactic last year from Anonymous: hack around at random, then retcon a political reason why the sites they successfully broke into deserved it.  It makes them look a lot more skilled than they actually are.

This isn’t to say that cyberattacks by governments aren’t an issue, or that cyberwar is something to be ignored.  Attacks from China reportedly are a mix of government-executed military attacks, government-sponsored independent attackers, and random hacking groups that work with tacit government approval.  The US also engages in active cyberattacks around the world.  Together with Israel, the U.S. employed a sophisticated computer virus (Stuxnet) to attack Iran in 2010.

For the typical company, defending against these attacks doesn’t require anything different than what you’ve been traditionally been doing to secure yourself in cyberspace.  If your network is secure, you’re secure against amateur geopoliticians who just want to help their side.

Categories: Computer and Information Security, Cyberwar and Cyberterrorism

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.