As the bodies continue to pile up in Syria, the Assad government's war against its own people extends beyond physical space to cyberspace. Not satisfied with pervasive surveillance through Internet and mobile networks -- conducted with the help of Western companies -- the Syrian government also conducts outright cyber-warfare against its own people.
The attacks started in earnest in February 2011, when the Syrian government suddenly removed long-standing blocks on social media websites including Facebook, Blogspot, and YouTube. Had President Bashar al-Assad suddenly become a free-speech advocate? Hardly. The real reason soon became clear: Government hackers launched what security experts call a "man in the middle" attack on Syrian Facebook users, inserting a false "security certificate" onto people's browsers when they tried to log into their Facebook accounts through the secure "https" version of the site. This attack enabled pro-government hackers to take over activists' accounts and gain access to their entire network of contacts.
In May, an organization called the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a pro-government hacking group, emerged with its website hosted on computer servers belonging to the government-affiliated Syrian Computer Society. In June, Assad called it "a real army in virtual reality" -- the first time, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a head of state is known to have praised a hacking group directly.
The tactics used to infiltrate activists' computers and social-media accounts have grown increasingly sophisticated. In February, reports emerged about "Trojan" viruses being spread through social media, Skype, and e-mail, which among other things capture the infected computer's webcam, disable anti-virus notifications, record keystrokes, or capture passwords, sending them to a computer address connected to the state-run Syrian Telecommunications Establishment. A fake YouTube site hosting opposition videos attacked visitors' computers with a similar virus.
In an effort to thwart what he called a "malign use of technology" by the governments of Syria and Iran, on Monday U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against individuals and entities that supply or aid governments' use of technology against their own people. One Syrian individual, two Syrian entities, and four Iranian entities were named as initial targets. Although the new sanctions have been hailed as a step in the right direction by human rights and other groups dedicated to online free expression and privacy, they leave some troubling questions unanswered: