Cybercrime – the acceptable face of modern warfare?

By Kevin Bailey.

Recently British Members of Parliament (MPs) voted not to engage in immediate military action in conjunction with other countries, including the US, against the Syrian government for their [assumed] role in the use of chemical weapons in Damascus.

Click to view the infographic
Click to view the infographic
A Daily Express poll which came before the MPs Commons debate on military action showed that 80 per cent of people were against David Cameron launching an immediate attack, while 12 per cent were undecided; a strong reflection that the views of UK citizens are in line with the way the MPs voted.

Although the UK government [may] conduct another vote next week after the availability of the initial report from the United Nations weapons inspectors and putting aside the possible repercussions of military force from the Syrian government on the opposition forces, following the commons vote, would the outcome of the vote been any different if military action had included ‘Cyber Warfare’ rather than the more traditional missiles and bullets?

Recent media coverage of [perceived] state-sponsored cyber-attacks on other countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and China shows the effectiveness that such attacks can have. When we look at Syria, will the nations of the world be deciding on what activity to take against the Syrian government when there could be another battle happening in Cyberspace between opposing cyber criminals.

The growth in hacktivist groups appears to swell every day, all for their own causes and not necessarily in cohesion with each other. In one corner stands the most notorious of the hacktivists, the Anonymous group, that supporters have called “freedom fighters” and “digital Robin Hoods” while critics have described them as “a cyber-lynch-mob” or "cyber terrorists" In 2012, Time called Anonymous (Anons) one of the "100 most influential people" in the world.

Broadly speaking, Anons oppose internet censorship and control, and the majority of their actions target governments, organizations, and corporations that they accuse of censorship. Anons were early supporters of the global Occupy movement and the Arab Spring.

In the other corner is the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) that launched itself in May 2011, stating that it was not officially allied with the government. Rather, its members asserted that they were merely patriotic young people who decided to use their skills to attack enemies of the Syrian government and those who spread "fabricated news" about the Syrian civil war, "No, we are not supported by anyone or part of the government," commented a representative for the SEA—identified as "a (not the) Leader". "We are just Syrian youths who want to defend their country against the media campaign that is full of lies and fabricated news reports. In June, 2011, Assad made a televised speech in which he praised the SEA and called it "a real army in a virtual reality."

Whether the SEA is officially/unofficially working with the Syrian government is actually irrelevant, as the purpose of the SEA is to defend their country. Similar to Anonymous, the SEA has already been working independently defacing and compromising [via spam and phishing attacks] media websites and social networks such as BBC News, Facebook, Associated Press, Al Jazeera, Financial Times, Twitter and The Washington Post amongst others.

But the difference comes in the purpose of these organizations. Anonymous supports the Arab Spring uprising (some compare to the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations), whereas the SEA (as a pro-government group) is fervently against this movement and the choice of countrymen across the Arab nations from bringing about changes via sustained campaigns involving strikes, demonstrations as well as the effective use of social media to organize, communicate, and raise awareness in the face of state attempts at repression and Internet censorship.

So should governments look to the new digital world as a way of applying pressure to the Syrian government to come to the negotiating table? If you review the current breakdown of the US $52 billion “black budget,” or their government’s secret pocketbook funding the CIA, NSA and other national security services (as shown below) as published in The Washington Post, there may not be the appetite yet to engage with the keyboard over the kalashnikov.

Breakdown of FY2013 Mission Objective Funding chart

While they are not officially working for the Syrian government, it would seem that the Syrian President could ask the SEA to collaborate to defend their country and the SEA would no doubt be willing to help. If this occurred, would the US and others retaliate in support and rather than send in the missiles, might a cyber-attack be a better way to reduce physical casualties? But would Anonymous step up to its profile as one of the "100 most influential people" in the world and be a ‘unwilling supporter of the US’ becoming another formidable force for the Syrian Government and SEA to battle against, especially as it appears from coverage in The Register that a show of strength and capability against the SEA by Anonymous has already started.