December 12, 2012

What the Syrian internet outage tells us about the ultimate dual-use technology

By Irving Lachow

Best Defense cyberwar correspondent

Last week, a front page story in the Washington Post began: "Syria's civil war went offline Thursday as millions of people tracking the conflict over YouTube, Facebook and other high-tech services found themselves struggling against an unnerving national shutdown of the Internet." Despite denials from the Syrian government, there is strong evidence that they were in fact responsible for this attempt at isolating the country from the global information commons. This was most likely accomplished by the state-run Syrian Internet service provider called Telecommunications Establishment, which appeared to have altered its routing tables to prevent both incoming and outgoing traffic from reaching its desired destinations. Although the timing of this action may have been sudden, the fact that the Syrian government would attempt to control rebel access to the Internet is not surprising. Egypt and Libya took similar actions during recent conflicts and Syria has been controlling access to the Internet on and off for many months.

Much like traditional warfare, the kind of cyberwarfare being promulgated by Syria is being driven by attempts to dominate the information sphere. For example, one of the first actions taken by the United States in its wars with Iraq was to dismantle their command and control systems. This provided the United States with freedom of action and reduced the ability of Iraqi forces to obtain accurate and timely situation awareness of the battlefield. Syria is trying to accomplish similar objectives. Limiting the rebels' access to the Internet and mobile communications is akin to blinding their command and control systems. By forcing rebels to rely on local Internet services provided by Syrian companies, the Syrian government can closely monitor rebel communications to obtain intelligence and situation awareness. In addition, the Syrian government can use the Internet to plant false information and undermine trust within the ranks of rebel leadership -- a classic psychological operations tactic for creating fear, uncertainty, and distrust within enemy ranks.

In response to the Syrian government's actions, the Syrian rebels have been using satellite phones -- equipment supplied to them by supporters that include the United States -- to maintain their lines of communication and connectivity to the Internet. The rebels may also be able to tap into the wireless networks of neighboring countries when they operate close to the border -- a fact which shows how difficult it is to implement a full Internet blackout in a country, even one as small and centrally-controlled as Syria. They are also continuing their efforts to influence outside parties by using videos, pictures, and other social media tools to tell their side of the story. As in many conflicts, the battle here is not just over territory but over who controls the narrative.

Events in Syria, Libya, and Egypt have demonstrated that the Internet has become a critical tool for combatants engaged in civil wars and uprisings. It provides command and control, surveillance and reconnaissance, and serves as a means of influencing supporters, opponents, and neutral third parties alike. At the same time, the fact that the Syrian government reestablished Internet connectivity just a few days after implementing a nation-wide blackout makes it clear that national leaders cannot simply shut off access to the Internet without repercussions. The Internet has become a tool of influence and warfare, but it is also a driver of commerce and social connectivity. Internet service providers can function as businesses that enable economic and personal freedom and they can chose (or be forced to) repress free speech, monitor "enemies of the state," and disconnect an entire country from the global communications grid. The Internet may be the ultimate dual-use technology. We will be dealing with that fact for decades to come.

Dr. Irving Lachow is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Technology and National Security at the Center for a New American Security.