Cyber-Rebel Hacks Tyranny in Syria

March 13th, 2013

In Syria, Bashar Assad’s regime has mounted a sophisticated surveillance program that monitors the Internet for dissidents using an arm of the military known as The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA). But wherever there’s tyranny there is rebellion.

A cyber-rebel group called the Pirates of Aleppo has mounted an online resistance and one such rebel is developing some exciting rebel tech. Ahmad Heidar is best known by his online name, “Harvester” and he’s been hacking the SEA directly from his hideout right over the border in southern Turkey.

The SEA has been arresting activists by tracking their Facebook pages, so the Harvester has taken aim at the SEA website itself.

In 2011, Heidar was called on by the Assad government to help develop a new electronic warfare unit as part of the regime’s mandatory military service. They stations him in an underground bunker filled with sophisticated computer equipment, including American technology that was supposedly prohibited by Western sanctions.

The unit was used to track rebels online to be arrested and tortured by the regime, so Heidar refused the position and began developing ways to protect the rebels instead. Thus the Harvester was born.

After an activist was arrested the Harvester would hack into their accounts and scrub them of all potentially incriminated content and anything that connected the activist to the rebellion.

He told NPR, “We replaced the flag of the revolution with pornography,” he says, “like pictures, you know, to keep the investigator busy.”

Considering reports in the US about the high rate of Federal agents watching porn on government computers, it’s probably a pretty good way to distract a bureaucrat. According to Heidar it worked. Arrested rebels were tortured a bit, but when no definitive information could be gleaned, they were released.

The the Harvester stepped up his game. He joined another group of cyber-rebels hacking a pro-regime TV station and replacing the regular broadcast with the message, “President Bashar Assad stepped down for the good of the people.”

Heidar described sparing with pro-regime software engineers as, “jujitsu or karate.” He said “We know each others’ moves.” At this point it truly is a martial art in the classic sense, when you consider that “martial” simply means “military.”

When the electricity and Internet were shut off in Aleppo he slipped across the border to a bug-out location in southern Turkey and continued his operation. Now, from a position of relative security, Heidar is applying his computer engineering skills offline to develop a rescue robot he calls “Tina.”

The robot is equipped with remote control titanium arms designed to scoop up victims of snipers on the streets of Aleppo. The Assad regime uses a “double tap” strategy similar to one popularized by the CIA’s drone program where after an attack a second attack launched to hit the rescue team. Heidar recalls once instance where four rescuers were shot trying to save a bleeding woman shot by a sniper and left alive, sprawled on the ground.

He says, “It’s like playing chess. Now, OK, here’s my move. Show me what you’ve got.” Turkish authorities have supported his project to build a prototype of Tina, and now he’s looking for donations to support his team of cyber-rebel.

For whatever reason, sci-fi dystopias left me with the impression that the State would end up with all the good tech in a tyrannical future. It’s nice to see a real world example of rebels developing their own hardware, because if the battle is won by innovation instead of destruction the private sector will always win.

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About the Author: Davi Barker

In grade school Davi refused to recite the pledge of allegiance because he didn't understand what it meant. He was ordered to do as he was told. In college he spent hours scouring through the congressional record trying to understand this strange machine. That's where he discovered Dr. Ron Paul. In 2007 he joined the End The Fed movement and found a political home with the libertarians. The Declaration of Independence claims that the government derives its power “from the consent of the governed." He does not consent.