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A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo August 7, 2012. (GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo August 7, 2012. (GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)

Hackers wage rumour war in Syria Add to ...

While some of the false blog posts were at least briefly shared via social media by readers who believed they were honest reports from Aleppo, it is far from clear whether anyone in the embattled city itself ever saw them.

A Reuters reporter on the ground quickly confirmed the reported rebel collapse in several key named suburbs appeared to be false, and postings themselves were quickly removed – although occasional screenshots remain on the Internet.

Nor does it appear that anyone was particularly convinced by the Sunday flurry of tweets from the captured @ReutersTech Twitter account, hastily renamed @ReutersME in an apparent attempt to present itself as a Middle East-based feed.

Again, there was a series of messages detailing a supposed rebel defeat in Aleppo, where heavy fighting continued on Monday with opposition forces still in control of much of the city. The account said rebel forces were out of ammunition and in “a sad situation” while the Syrian army boasted the fight was like “shooting fish in a barrel.”

It then went on to claim that the White House had confirmed it was arming Al Qaeda militants within Syria as part of its support for the fight against Assad. In the final handful of tweets before access was cut, the user said Washington had always funded Al Qaeda even in the decade since the September 11, 2001 attacks and then accused Reuters itself of being in the “iron grip” of the Rothschild banking dynasty.

“The problem with these attacks is that they are always quickly noticed and even if they are successful in grabbing headlines and fooling people for a short period of time, they have very limited effect,” said Tal Be’ery, web security research team leader at IT security firm Imperva.

“They are not that technically sophisticated, and my assessment is that they would most likely be from amateurs rather than the regime itself. That tells us that Assad still has some support amongst people able to do this both inside and outside the country, but that is about it.”

Monday’s Twitter-fuelled rumours of Mr. Assad’s demise, knocked down within minutes, could conceivably have shaken some of his supporters but are unlikely to have lasted long.

The true priority for the real computer experts of both the government and opposition, most believe, will be the cat and mouse game between government surveillance systems and the opposition networks they are trying to track.

For Mr. Assad’s opponents, evading government detection has long been a matter of life and death. Autocratic governments around the world, specialists say, have put considerable effort into tightening their Internet surveillance on potential dissidents since last year’s “Arab spring” ousted rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

“The primary target of SEA is certainly their own citizens,” said Alexander Klimburg, cyber security expert and fellow at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs.

“It is hard to estimate how successful they are tracking the protesters, but it seems they are much better at it than the former Tunisian or Egyptian secret police, and seem just as good as the Iranian security forces in this regard.”

Some believe Assad may be getting technical support from his long-term allies in Tehran, who successfully crushed their own post-election protests that were in part organized over the Internet. China and Russia too are has amongst the world leaders in managing online political activism and dissent, with the latter at least also seen likely helping out in Syria.

“We know that they have been having a lot of success with fake online Facebook profiles, ssl certificates and other methods to break into the opposition,” said Imperva’s Be’ery. “We know that Russia was very involved in setting up the Syrian signals intelligence system and it is possible they still have access to Russian expertise and even experts.”

The opposition too may also have foreign support. Some suspect the hand of a western signals intelligence agency in the Assad e-mail leak, while the U.S. State Department says it has given them technical advice and equipment to help stay one step ahead of government monitoring.

But Syria’s Mr. Assad, experts say, has long taken an interest in the Internet and its potential uses. Before taking the presidency, he was president of the “Syrian Computer Society,” a group now widely believed to have been something of a precursor to the “Syrian Electronic Army.”

“It is probably not officially integrated into the security services,” Mr. Klimburg said. “As such, it performs similar tasks to the ‘Shabbiha’ militias – intimidation of local anti-government forces and direct operations that the Assad regime thinks are best not associated with it.”

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