Skip to main content

The cyber threat from Syria

By James Lewis, Special to CNN
updated 12:33 PM EDT, Fri August 30, 2013
Users who tried to access NYTimes.com Tuesday encountered error messages or web pages from the Syrian Electronic Army.
Users who tried to access NYTimes.com Tuesday encountered error messages or web pages from the Syrian Electronic Army.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times website went down for several hours
  • James Lewis: Syrian Electronic Army launched the attack to protest the West
  • He says the group of "patriotic hackers" dislike U.S. media portrayal of al-Assad regime
  • Lewis: Some audiences in the Mideast enjoy seeing Western institutions humbled

Editor's note: James Lewis is director and senior fellow of Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

(CNN) -- On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times website experienced wide outage for several hours. Who has the nerve and ability to take down one of the most iconic newspapers in the world?

The Syrian Electronic Army, which is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, takes responsibility for the hack. This is not the first time the Syrian Electronic Army has attacked news organizations. The Washington Post, AP and others have been targeted in recent months as well.

If the New York Times saw Syrian activists spray-painting slogans on its building, it could summon the minions of the law to detain them. But if you live far away in a place where American law does not apply, you are safe. It does not take much skill to intrude in cyberspace, and you can find free tools on the Internet that will let you stage a protest or an attack.

When you log on to the Internet, you can send packets of digital data around the world in seconds. The speed of global connectivity gives the illusion that there are no borders. But this is not true. There are borders in cyberspace, they are just badly defended.

The combination of high speeds, global reach and weak defenses means that someone sitting in Damascus or Tehran can take action in New York or Australia as easily as they could against the building across the street -- perhaps even easier as they won't have to leave their chair.

The Syrian Electronic Army's attacks are a form of protest against Western media's portrayal of the Assad regime. Most experts think the Syrian Electronic Army is not the Syrian government, but "patriotic hackers" who support it. This makes them harder to control and harder to find. The Syrian Electronic Army takes public diplomacy to a new level, letting individuals make their voices known on issues as easily as a government.

What we have seen from the Syrian Electronic Army is political action and sometimes political theater. Hacker groups like Anonymous, WikiLeaks or the Syrian Electronic Army have a symbiotic relationship with media that helps turn minor exploits into front-page news. The Syrian Electronic Army likes to go after the media because this is one way to make sure your message is heard. The Syrian Electronic Army's message to the Western media is one of scorn, ridicule and belittlement.

This week's attack showed more skill than earlier episodes. It resembled a cyber attack made by Iran against dissidents in 2011. Perhaps the Iranians are helping the SEA in cyberspace, but it's more likely that they provided inspiration.

The Syrian Electronic Army broke into the Australian company that hosts The Times' website (called a registrar) and changed its Internet addresses. This redirection was invisible to users who tried to visit NYTimes.com -- they either couldn't connect or were sent to another website controlled by the Syrians. The hackers got inside the target network and made some fundamental changes to how it worked. Some security experts have pointed out that The Times made its own networks vulnerable because of a "misstep" and as a result its website was easier to hack.

So far, the Syrian Electronic Army's actions have been embarrassing rather than damaging. The attackers probably don't know how to carry out a more destructive attack. But with time they could easily learn.

The Syrian Electronic Army's hacking won't change the outcome of the conflict in Syria (whatever that will be), but we don't want to discount the political effect of their actions. Some audiences in the Middle East likely enjoy seeing Western institutions humbled, and the Syrian Electronic Army is helping to dispel a sense of powerlessness against the Western behemoth. It boosts morale.

We also don't want to discount the risks. If the Syrian Electronic Army can slip by feeble defenses to make fun of the media, someone else might be able to get in and cause more serious disruption. There are a lot of reasons why the Syrian Electronic Army might choose not to launch this kind of crippling cyber attack, but the strength of our defense isn't one of them.

There are things that companies can do to protect themselves. Australia's Signals Directorate, the equivalent of NSA, has a list of mitigation strategies that would have block most of the Syrian Electronic Army does, but they aren't well known in the U.S.

The global Internet brings tremendous, benefit but the threats are growing faster than our defenses. It's a vulnerable place with few rules. Until this is changed, hacks on The New York Times and others will be the norm, not the exception.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Lewis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT