As military strikes between Israel and Gaza continued with the deaths of 11 Palestinian civilians on Sunday, a complicated internet battlefront has appeared. A virtual info-war is just beginning, and it exists on multiple fronts. There is an unprecedentedly transparent wave of social media propaganda by both sides, a fairly predictable backlash of Israeli website defacement from Anonymous and an effort to bring open internet access for civilians affected by the strikes from a group called Telecomix.
On Wednesday, the IDF released an infographic-filled video describing the methods the IDF uses (phone calls and precision strikes) to minimise civilian casualties. The IDF is also live-tweeting the strikes on Gaza using their shiny new Twitter account, @IDFSpokesperson. The Twitter feed for Al Qassam, the military branch of Hamas, has responded by tweeting numerous photos of dead children killed by Israeli strikes. These photos are a very effective and graphic response to the monochromatic circles Israel is using in their videos to say they’re not killing anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Though, as Business Insider reported, one of the Hamas tweets was a picture from the conflict in Syria.
Besides this public social media conflict between governments – which is shockingly savvy and direct – the hacker group Anonymous is also taking action through a campaign they’re calling #OpIsrael. According to Anonymous, Israel threatened to cut out electricity and the internet in Gaza, though that has not been confirmed by any news source. Anonymous responded to this supposed threat, and to the bombings in Gaza, with one of their trademark public service announcements on YouTube. The resulting offensive from Anonymous led to the temporary shutdowns and defacements of hundreds of Israeli websites, including the Bank of Jerusalem.
I was greeted with this defacement page on a website for the Israeli Tourism Board yesterday.
While most sources are claiming the number of Israeli websites taken down is between 663 and 700, Israel’s Finance Minister has said that the government has “deflected 44 million cyber attacks on government websites” and called this wave of attacks a “second front” in this conflict. Besides website defacements and takedowns, Anonymous leaked a document containing thousands of email addresses and passwords supposedly belonging to IDF operatives and Israeli government officials. Attached to the leaked document, the Anonymous leaker added: “this is/will turn into a cyber war.”
Anonymous has also been distributing a “care package” to the citizens of Gaza. The package, named “OpIsrael.Care.Package.v2.0” contains a press release, first aid instructions in English and Arabic, a technical guide with information on how to circumvent authoritarian internet shut-downs (like the one in Egypt during their Arab Spring), a proxy that can be used to hide the IP address and location of your computer, as well as a small image file of the Anonymous crest.
After running the documents through Google Translate, it’s clear that the information inside of the care package is designed to help civilians get online and spread information in the event of an Internet shutdown. The documents describe how to activate Twitter via text messaging in case the internet is inactive, advises people to use fax machines, make their own WiFi antennas out of spare aluminum and to print out their email contacts in case they lose access to their virtual address book. It also encourages people to use the Telecomix dial-up network.
If you’re not familiar with Telecomix, they’re a group that believes in “datalove”, or freedom of information. Telecomix provides dial-up internet lines (remember those?) to areas of the world where broadband services may be shut down. They were very vocal – and still are – in Syria. As Forbes reported, Telecomix temporarily hijacked the web browsers of Syrian civilians with a message providing “instructions on using free encryption and anonymity software like Tor and TrueCrypt to evade surveillance and censorship.”
The Telecomix logo.
I logged onto the Telecomix IRC channel to discuss the motivations and work that goes into bringing freedom of information to areas of severe conflict. A large part of their operation is dedicated to filling their Bluecabinet Wiki with information. Telecomix started the Bluecabinet Wiki after they discovered the American tech firm Blue Coat had sold their internet monitoring technology to Syria, who in turn used it to oppress their population by monitoring and censoring their online activities. In retaliation, Telecomix released 54GB of logs detailing the censorship of Syria’s population using Blue Coat’s technology. That, of course, caused a bit of a stir, and allowed some writers to discuss the problems of American tech firms providing their surveillance and security software to oppressive dictatorships.
I spoke to “Batgirl”, an active Telecomix hacker, who told me that the group uses their Wiki to “identify tech vendors that are manufacturing or selling products used for surveillance, filtering, monitoring, data mining, etc. These products are weapons when in the wrong hands.” On the Telecomix Wiki, 16 cyber-security and surveillance companies that are either Israeli or have offices in Israel are listed. One such company, Allot, saw its stocks plummet last December when it broke an Israel/Iran trade embargo by selling its traffic monitoring technology to Iran.
Batgirl told me that while some companies get caught selling their tech products to dangerous nations, “the penalties are nothing financially. Obviously it doesn’t stop them.” Evidently, Allot is still a fully functional company. Batgirl also said that in order to get around trade embargos or federal laws, “many tech companies use distributors and resellers from countries that do not have sanctions against Syria or Iran. Tech companies can send their products to Russia, China, India… and from there, resellers sell to Syria or Iran. Tech companies have partnerships with distributors and resellers. The distributors are the man in the middle.”
When I asked why Telecomix uses dial-up lines, aside from the fact that it provides a second avenue for internet access in the event of a broadband blackout, Batgirl told me, “Phone lines are a little more difficult to shut down when the government needs those lines.” Dial-up lines are not immune to interception, however. In a text document released by Telecomix instructing residents of the Gaza Strip how to get online, they wrote: “The Telecomix dialups are not secure and do not protect from wiretapping of your communications. It is still important to proceed with precaution and encrypt the data.”
A screenshot from Telecomix’s Gaza document that details how to get onto their dial-up networks.
Unfortunately, without individuals publicly saying something along the lines of: “Telecomix saved me from censorship and now, because of them, I can release all this information that will help save the world!” It is hard to measure the effectiveness of Telecomix’s fight against internet censorship. However, as one Telecomix hacker told me, they’re happy if their service is “used once and one life is saved.” According to Telecomix, their dial-up lines are active and being used.
Besides virtual offensives against Israeli websites and the creation of an independent dial-up infrastructure, hacktivists have been working on a more traditional level to help the people of Gaza, and further diversify the accomplishments of #OpIsrael. One member of Anonymous who I spoke to is “working with a medical professional who owns a bunch of medical centers to get some supplies sent to Gaza. Mostly antibiotics and basic stuff.”
While this particular flare-up between Israel and Gaza is brand new (though, of course, one of the oldest conflicts on Earth), in many ways it’s business as usual for the hackers fighting back by opening a second front of online warfare. Almost as quickly as the military strikes began, Anonymous and Telecomix were ready with the same tactics they used during the Arab Spring and are currently using in Syria. What is new this time around is the social media presence of Israel and Hamas, who are openly distributing their propaganda on YouTube and Twitter. As the military conflict develops in the Gaza Strip, the complicated effort by hackers and government to control the flow of information will only evolve. As Batgirl from Telecomix told me in response to their successful operation in Syria: “It is too soon to be able to know, or say, if we can do the same for Gaza.”