Hactivism is making possible to bring wars and revolutions on the cyberspace, the fifth domain of war. In particular the Arab Spring has given the definitive consecration to politically driven hacking actions that have proven to be a key factor inside the protests that are changing the political landscape in the Middle East: non conventional weapons used together with “traditional” methods by both parties involved on revolutions: cyber-opponents vs cyber-supporters.
Tunisia has been the first example of this new way to provide backing to social protests: at the beginning of 2011 the Anonymous activists targeted Tunisian government sites. It was the 4th of January and this action (or Operation quoting the same term used by the Anonymous) showed to the world the real, political and social power of the Cyber warfare.
Few days later (June, 26th 2011) the same fate befell to Egypt: government sites were targeted with DDOS attacks which contributed to draw attention to ongoing protests which led to the fall of President Mubarak.
Following the wake of the Arab spring, the Anonymous also took position in the Libyan Revolution declaring their engagement with the rebels. Although, from an information security perspective, no practical consequence followed this statement, it had a huge symbolic significance, since in a clear and decisive manner, an hacker crew crossed the boundary of the cyberspace and took position on a social and political event even before performing any hacking acton.
But in Syria the revolution fought in the fifth domain has reached its “bloody” peak. On August, the 7th 2011 the Anonymous targeted the Syrian Ministry of Defense with a resounding defacement. A couple of days later, in retaliation of the previous defacement, the Syrian Electronic Soldiers defaced Anonplus, the Anonymous Social Network, that had already been, a couple of weeks before, the target of a defacement performed by the same Syrian Crew.
But the “war inside the war” fought between the two groups does not stop here: following the bloody events in Syria, on Sunday, 25th of September, the Anonymous decided to open again the hostilities unleashing a chain of defacement action, against the Syrian Government, hacking and defacing the official sites of seven major Syrian cities, which stayed up in their defaced version for more than 16 hours. The defacement actions kept on the following day in which 11 Syrian Government Sites were defaced as part of the same operation.
Of course a retaliation of the Syrian Electronic Soldier was predictable (and close in time) and targeted, in an unexpected manner, one of the most important US Universities, the University of Harvard which was victim of a resounding defacement on Monday, the 26th of September.
So far the two Cyber Armies have shown an unprecedented impetus in countering their respective acts of cyberwar. Probably the story will not end up here and, most of all, we will have to get used to watch the wars and the revolutions on a double perspective involving real battlefields and virtual battlefields. The problem here is that information security professionals and system administrators are not likely to be mere spectators, but the real soldiers of this non conventional war.
David has shown me another example of the strict connection between real warfare and mobile warfare come from Afghanistan. Few days after the revelations about the Internet in Suitcase project funded by the Obama Administration and aimed to deploy a “shadow” Internet and an hidden mobile phone network to be used by dissidents, an indipendent, but somehow similar project has been implemented in Afghanistan. It is called FabFi and it is essentially an open-source, FabLab-grown system using common building materials and off-the-shelf electronics to transmit wireless ethernet signals across distances of up to several miles. Said in few words, the main component of this home made network can be built out of trash.
The Afghan city of Jalalabad has built a high-speed DIY Internet network with main components built out of trash found locally. A FabFi node can be buolt out of approximately $60 worth of everyday items such as boards, wires, plastic tubs, and cans that will serve a whole community at once.
SInce January 2009, the Jalalabad FabLab demonstrated the capability of the FabFi system by bringing high-speed internet to a village, hospital, university, and a non-governmental organization in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. These low-cost, locally-produced networks can be easily spread across isolated villages and towns, placing them in touch with the outside world and facilitating socio-economic development from the ground up.
Jalalabad’s longest link is currently 2.41 miles, between the FabLab and the water tower at the public hospital in Jalalabad, transmitting with a real throughput of 11.5Mbps (compared to 22Mbps ideal-case for a standards compliant off-the-shelf 802.11g router transitting at a distance of only a few feet). The system works consistently through heavy rain, smog and a couple of good sized trees.
The project is important from a double perspective: from a technological point of view it allows high speed connectivity for war zones, or rather zones lacking conventional broadband. From a sociological point of view it confirms the strict relationship between Internet and Democracy, and, (in)directly it also confirms that the Internet is a fundamental weapon for fights in favor of the democracy, what we called the Mobile Warfare.
I could not help noticing, by tweeting with my colleague David:
@cencio4 if you make a parallelism with real warfare, it is like building home made weapons for guerrilla.
And, as a matter of fact, in order to further emphasize the parallelism, he replied:
@paulsparrows that’s exactly what rebels did in Libya with parts of helos on Mad Max-like vehicles
Take the examples of Afghanistan and Libya, invert respectively the terms Internet Connectivity and Weapons, and result is exactly the same.
- Consumerization of Warfare (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
- Internet In A Suitcase (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
- Shareable: Afghans Build Open-Source Internet From Trash (mbcalyn.wordpress.com)
Or rather “Tweets like Bullets”… I must confess I was uncertain about the title of this post. At the end the one I chose, although absurd at first view, better describes the role that Mobile Technologies (the so called Mobile Warfare) are playing in the dramatic events of Syria. Only few months ago it would have been absurd to only think to fight a tank with a mobile phone, today, looking at what it is happening in the Middle East (and also to what has happened in the Maghreb), it is an image which goes far beyond the reality, and perfectly describes in few words, much better than any post, the way in which the battles for human rights are being led in the Web 2.0 (or War 2.0) world…
The title of the post came to my mind after viewing this post, which well summarizes the way revolutions are being fought.
And both of them (together with other tweets of the same shape appeared today), are dramatically witnessing, once again more than any post, how deeply the Mobile Warfare is acting in Syria.
Mobile Warfare shows, once more, that modern wars are being fought in real battlefields and virtual battlefields in the same time, and if one considers mobile phones as a new kind of weapons (and social networks as the media to propagate PsyOps), one finds for these new weapons the same patterns used for real weapons. As a matter of fact what happens in real battlefields? It often happens that foreign governments interested in changing the tide of the battle, allocate funding for the revolutions. Instead in virtual battlefields foreign governments spend millions to facilitate the use of the Internet technologies for activists (as I reported yesterday). Moreover in real battlefields close countries to war zones are used to deliver weapons to one of the parties fighting; again in virtual battlefield close countries are used to smuggle “war 2.0” weapons such as satellite phones, cameras and laptops. Not only: while in real battlefields corps of engineers build line of communications, in virtual battlefield corps of (network and security) engineers build line of mobile communications: this happened in Libya with the backing of Egypt and this is happening in Syria with the backing of Jordan which today enhanced the strength of its mobile network to balance the cut-off of yesterday performed by the Government in order to prevent Mobile Communications the Deraa Governatorate.
In the virtual battlefield there are also sabotage actions: how else to interpret the fact that the Syrian government has been forced to postpone the auction of its third GSM mobile licence due to the political uprisings in the country. The story in itself is really interesting, but there is a point in particular which is worthwhile to mention:
Before the protests started, France Telecom, Turkcell and Etisalat were all in the running to bid for the licence. But, at the end of March Etisalat withdrew its offer with France Telecom and Turkcell both removing their bids at the beginning of April.
Etisalat is the UAE Telco Provider which took part to the hack of Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyana Operator providing the satellite feed allowing the Free Libyana calls to be routed. Mobile Warfare has always the same patterns regardless of the country in which it acts.
One last consideration: on top of these thoughts (and these tweets) I could not help thinking about the opposite role that mobile technologies and social network play into different regions of the world. While they contribute to maintain stability (and maturity) in mature countries (even if an excessive usage, most of all from younger generations, tends to make people slave and immature), they are playing a crucial role to enhance the level of freedom and awareness in unstable countries. This is what I called The Thin Red Line which marks the political and social impact of the new technologies into our World constantly moving.
So far what is happening in Libya has offered to myself and to my dear colleague, friend and aviation guru David Cenciotti many opportunities to analyze the points of convergence in modern wars between information security and military operations.
In several posts I tried to figure out the role of new technologies in modern wars (now you should be familiar and even a little bit bored with the term Mobile Warfare), and probably this article describing a real operation aimed to hijack the Libyana Cellular Network by the Rebel Forces is the best example to describe how real modern wars may be fought with Cyber weapons.
Apparently this is a pure (cyber)military operation and there is no trace of conventional military forces, nevertheless (I am getting older!) after publishing the article I just felt like I missed something. Only a couple of days later, David made me notice I missed a fundamental link between the cyber operation and his real passion: the aviation. He had to quote a passage of the original Wall Street Journal article to make me realize the missing element:
The new network, first plotted on an airplane napkin and assembled with the help of oil-rich Arab nations, is giving more than two million Libyans their first connections to each other and the outside world after Col. Gadhafi cut off their telephone and Internet service about a month ago.
How could I miss it! The new hijacked network was first plotted on an airplane napkin: here the point of convergence between Cyber Operations and aviation, even if in this case the support provided by aviation was only logistic and not military, in the sense that it provided, so to speak, the necessary “infrastructure” to plot the initial schema of the network.
Of course this is a kind of joke since in this case the role of cyber weapons (the hijack plan) and conventional weapons (the airplane) was well distinct and consequently the boundary of cyber world and real world was not overcome (as if to say: the cell network was not bombed). Nevertheless these joyful thoughts come out in the same day in which an (apparently unrelated) opposite example has shown that the boundary between the two worlds can be easily overcome and cyber weapons may become as lethal as real weapons: the example is Stuxnet, since just today Iran admitted the real extent of the damage caused by this terrible malware.
In recent weeks, Iranian media reported about dozens of large-scale accidents and explosions in Iran’s industrial sites, especially facilities dealing with oil and petrochemicals. Iran reported at least ten deaths in these explosions.
“Enemies have attacked industrial infrastructure and undermined industrial production through cyber attacks. This was a hostile action against our country,” Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted Jalali as saying. “If it had not been confronted on time, much material damage and human loss could have been inflicted.”
The fact that Stuxnet damaged some Iranian Nuclear Facilities and delayed the Nuclear Program is something well known. The fact that the malware even caused some victims between the technicians of the industrial sites targeted is something completely new and unprecedented. From a metaphorical point of view Stuxnet acted as a portal between cyber and real battlefields, where unfortunately victims are not virtual. Another unenviable record demolished by this terrible malware that is leaving an indelible mark on the information security landscape .
- Another Stuxnet from the “Stars”? (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
- Will Energy Facilities Be The Next Targets Of Cyber-War? (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
- Mobile Warfare (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
- Tweets Of Freedom (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
- Mobile Warfare in Syria (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
- Corps of (Network and Security) Engineers (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
- The Thin Red Line (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
- Mobile Warfare In Libya Comes True (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
An interesting article from The Wall Street Journal confirmed what I have been writing in my posts since a couple of weeks: Mobile Technologies are destined to play a crucial role in modern conflicts (what I defined Mobile Warfare) and the traditional Military Corps of Engineers will necessarily have to be complemented by Corps of Network and Security Engineers dedicated to establish and maintain connectivity in war zones.
This is exactly what happened in Libya where the rebels, with the support of a Libyan-American telecom executive Ousama Abushagur and oil-rich Arab nations, were able to hijack Libyana Phone Network, the cellular network owned by one of the Colonel’s sons, to steal from Libyana a database of phone numbers, and to build from (partial) scratch a new cell network serving 2 million Libyans, renamed “Free Libyana”. This action was aimed to restore internal Cellular communications after Gaddafi shut down the country’s cellular and data networks.
The operation was led from Abu Dhabu by Ousama Abushagur, a 31-year-old Libyan telecom executive. Mr. Abushagur and two childhood friends started fund-raising on Feb. 17 to support the political protests that were emerging in Libya. During one mission to bring humanitarian aid convoys to eastern Libya, they found their cellphones jammed or out of commission, making nearly impossible planning and logistics. This was the reason why Mr.Abushagur decided to draw a plan for hijacking the Libyana Network, divert the signal and establish a new backbone free of Tripoli’s control, also with the intention to provide backing to the rebels forces which were beginning to feel the effects of the loyalist counteroffensive.
In a race against time to solve technical, engineering and legal challenges, U.A.E. and Qatar (whose officials didn’t respond to requests for comment) provided diplomatic (and economical) support to buy the telecommunications equipment needed in Benghazi. A direct support was provided also by Etilsat, Emirates Teleccomunications Corporation, which refused to comment as well). The support of the Gulf nation was necessary also because, meanwhile, it looks like that Huawei Technologies Ltd., the Chinese Company among the original contractors for Libyana’s cellular network backbone, refused to sell equipment for the rebel project, causing Mr. Abushagur and his engineers to implement a hybrid technical solution to match other companies’ hardware with the existing Libyan network.
By March 21, most of the main pieces of equipment had arrived in the U.A.E. and Mr. Abushagur shipped them to Benghazi with a team composed by three Libyan telecom engineers, four Western engineers and a team of bodyguards: the Corps of Network Engineers committed to build the new infrastructure in the war zone.
Since Col. Gaddafi’s forces were bombing the rebel capital, Mr. Abushagur diverted the Corps of Network Engineers and their equipment to an Egyptian air base on the Libyan border (another indirect show of Arab support for rebels). Once in Libya, the Corps paired with Libyana engineers and executives based in Benghazi. Together, they fused the new equipment into the existing cellphone network, creating an independent data and routing system free from Tripoli’s command. To be free from Tripoli was also a security requirement, since Col. Gaddafi had built his telecommunications infrastructure in order to route all calls (and data) through the capital in order to be easily intercepted and eavesdropped.
After implementing the network, the new Telco had to attract “customers”. A war zone is not the ideal place for advertisement, so nothing better than capturing the Tripoli-based database of phone numbers, and inserting Libyana customers and phone numbers into the new system called “Free Libyana.” The last piece of the puzzle was securing a satellite feed, through Etisalat, with which the Free Libyana calls could be routed.
An important detail: all the operation was successfully performed without the support of allied forces, the result is that rebels now can use cellphones to communicate between the front lines and opposition leaders.
If for a moment we forget that we are speaking about cellular networks, we could assimilate this event as part of a civil war operation, in which friendly countries and dissidents from abroad endeavor to provide weapons to rebels in order to turn the tide of a conflict (examples of which the history is full). In this circumstance this operation did not turn the tide of the conflict (at least so far but mobile warfare, while important, has still a smaller weight in a conflict than real warfare), nevertheless, for sure, restored mobile communications are supporting the leaders of the rebellion to better communicate among them and to better organize the resistance against the loyalists: as a matter of fact the March cutoff forced rebels to use flags to communicate on the battlefield. I will never tire of saying that the events in the Mediterranean area do (and did) not rely solely on conventional weapons but also on weapons of communications (the mobile warfare) through which rebels forces provided abroad the information necessary to witness exactly the brutal internal events and rallied international backing.
After so much theory depicted in my posts, finally the first real and meaningful example of the importance of mobile warfare in the events of Northern Africa, and that example! One single event has unleashed the importance of mobile technologies in war zone and the crucial role played by specialized teams dedicated to establish and maintain communications: the Corps of (Network and Security) Engineers.