Conflict Breeds Cyber Attacks

Posted: 19th August 2013
Conflict Breeds Cyber Attacks

In a previous post describing the hacktivist component of a dispute between the governments of Taiwan and the Philippines, we mentioned the increasing conflation of physical and digital action in political and social clashes. Propaganda, (dis)information dissemination, and disruption of communication have long been elements of conflict.

We now find cyber attacks, particularly website defacement and interruption of services, added to the typical conflict scenario.

The stunning violence that broke out last week in Egypt is the latest example of this phenomenon. Members of the hacker collective Anonymous quickly mobilized against the Egyptian military and interim government by targeting web assets that have so far included the Ministry of Information, Ministry of Justice, and Egyptian Armed Forces.

This is not the first time that hacktivists have backed Egyptian protesters against their government, but it demonstrates an impressive ability to mobilize disparate supporters in short order.

In this case, it was a matter of hours from the reappearance of military violence against protesters to segments of Anonymous calling for the takedown of Egyptian government targets under the #OpEgypt campaign.

Observing the week of violence and cyber events in Egypt between August 10 and August 17 via a Recorded Future timeline, we can see the rapid response of online activists to the rash of armed attacks that started on August 13. That day, a young supporter of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was killed during a march; by the evening, the AnonOpSaudiX Twitter account had put out instructions for a “webhive” against the Central Bank of Egypt.

As the military’s campaign of violence escalated, so did the digital attacks as you can see in the event timeline with hackers claiming to have knocked multiple Egyptian governments sites offline on August 15 and August 16.

Parallel Physical and Digital Protests in 2013

It’s by no means the first response of this kind from hacktivists in instances of  civil liberties infringement and government or police violence against citizens. As noted up front in this post, political strife between the Philippines and Taiwan resulted in a volley of website defacements between hackers from both countries. The massive street demonstrations in Turkey and Brazil earlier this summer also included concurrent digital protests.

These are, of course, all distinct and nuanced political and/or social scenarios, but each resulted in the hacking of government web assets albeit with slightly different incubation periods in the wake of physical demonstrations.

Hacking is a Mainstay of Conflict

These examples show hacking is now a fixture in conflict. The widespread availability of tools to achieve at least surface level damage makes cyber attacks complementary in many scenarios: citizens demonstrating against perceived or brutally obvious injustices by their government; states combating one another over security or policy issues; or activists campaigning against organizations and companies.

Many of you will recognize the catchphrase and rallying cry for hackers associated with Anonymous: “Expect us.” Irrespective of their organizational affiliation, expect hackers to appear quickly wherever there is resistance and discord.