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Tech and the Syrian Revolution: meet Hazrid...

Hazrid is a Syrian entrepreneur and activist. He lives in one of the larger cities in Syria, where he is part of the revolution’s tech team. Hazrid isn’t a real name but a nom de guerre pulled from the world of HP Lovecraft – Abdul Alhazred is the imaginary ‘Mad Arab’ author of the Kitab al-Azif – and Hazrid himself has much of that dark Lovecraftian humour. I interviewed him over Skype a few days ago.

Hazrid is a tech revolutionary or “e-mundas”, his enemies the “e-shabiha”. Activists call themselves ‘mundaseen’ (foreign “infiltrators”) because, according to Bashar al-Assad, they are the ones behind the protests. They have made it true for him. Just as homosexuals appropriated the term ‘queer’, so with the revolutionaries. Who can help but think of Santorum

Their key job is “securing communications internally, and getting communications out – all of which happens electronically”. They are developing their own programmes too - “I’d prefer to keep that private”, he says, “but we’re doing pretty nice stuff, amazing stuff – and I’m sure much of it will be used after the revolution for the benefit of future revolutionaries elsewhere.”

“The revolution is run on Skype,” he says, “Facebook, Twitter – we don’t need them to communicate between ourselves, but we do need them to communicate with the outside world…” They don’t use direct messaging on Twitter, nor do they use their cellphones. “We have our own ways to do information management. It’s a pretty social thing, in fact – probably because of the way Syrian society is built.”

“Facebook is purely for media distribution,” as Youtube and Twitter. In the early days of the uprising, there was very little media being posted online – after 40 years of near-epidermal state surveillance, that was a fear too far. Gradually, however, the Mundaseen realized the regime couldn’t stop them, nor – incredibly, according to Hazrid – did it seem much to care. Their focus was disrupting the internal communications of the activists and protestors. As Hazrid reminds me, in Assad’s Baathist Syria, there could never be any such thing as a ‘spontaneous’ protest – it was much too dangerous, everything had to be organized in advance. Disrupting that organization has been at the heart of all regime efforts on the tech front.

But, he tells me “the technical capabilities of the regime are minimal.” Assad only shuttered the entire country’s internet for a day, back in April 2011. Now, it is done city by city: “Homs lost the web, then Idlib… wherever there’s a problem, they just cut the web off… It’s pretty simple: for mobile phones all you need do is unplug the towers, and for internet you just shut down the neighbourhood server – literally unplug the cable.” The problem for the regime, of course, is that “the internet was designed to heal itself and circumvent censorship – so if they disconnect a server, the internet will automatically try to reroute the traffic to the closest server that’s still working… like electricity.”

But while Hazrid sneers at the regime’s technical abilities, he says “we all work under the assumption that one day we’ll be caught.” “Old style mostly”: activists are caught because informers report on them, or they’re picked up at a protest or a checkpoint, or a contact is brutalized into giving our their names. But the regime also works with the technology. “They follow Facebook pages, and a lot of people have been arrested for what they’ve written on Facebook. They tried, early, to do certificate spoofing on Facebook; they tried Man-in-the-Middle attacks; they use Malware, backdoors and Trojans… especially Dark Comet, which is free. They didn’t even pay for their spy tools!” he half-laughs half-winces.

The regime does, however, have access to high end monitoring technology. They use Fortigate from Fortninet, a NASDAQ-listed US company; they use products from Blue Coat (based out of California); and were midway through installing an Italian monitoring system from Area before the providers backed out. Now, according to Hazrid, they use an Iranian version. The problem, however, is that “they don’t have the manpower or training to do it properly.” Mundas hackers found, for example, an open FTP-folder with all the Blue Coat locks unencrypted – which is how they knew the regime was using the newest ProxySG 9000 system.

But if the e-Mundaseen don’t have access to enterprise software of the kind that backs Assad’s e-shabiha, they do have the support of much of the international anarcho-tech community (especially many of the tech groups behind the Occupy movement). It’s a double-edged sword in some cases, since a leak in those networks (like the recent disclosure that Sabu, the driving force behind LulzSec, was an FBI informant) has an immediate ripple effect within their own networks. But broadly it has been, according to Hazrid, both a great asset and source of enormous encouragement and support.

But listen up Geeks: what the Syrian e-Mundas needs above all else are two things:
1. Encrypted software that can cater for file transfer and video/voice communications that can be used at a local scale.
2. Mesh protocols developed for Syrian needs, as an alternative to BGANs and satellites to counter the regime’s regular internet shutdowns.

Any ideas, please contact me directly…
tm@demotix.com

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