Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Syrian Pro-Government Hackers Take Their Fight to CBS and Twitter

We now know who it was that carried out the hacking attacks on the Twitter accounts of various CBS News outlets last night: The Syrian Electronic Army.

It’s a band of digital activists and hackers who support the beleaguered government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The group, which claimed credit for the attacks via a statement on its website, has a history of attacking the websites and social media accounts of various western media organizations.

On April 16, it attacked websites and some Twitter accounts belonging to NPR. Last month, it attacked the website of Human Rights Watch, as well as its Twitter account. Also in March, it breached a Twitter account belonging to the BBC. And last year it gained access to a blog belonging to Reuters, and posted a fake story, detailing a retreat by Syrian rebels that hadn’t happened.

CBS experienced at least one more attack last night after the initial one. The Verge captured images of three more tweets from the account belonging to its high-profile Sunday night magazine show “60 Minutes,” presumably sent by hijackers. Today, as of 8:15 am PT, the “60 Minutes” Twitter account and that of another CBS show, “48 Hours,” were suspended.

Matt Polevoy, a social media producer at CBS News, announced the suspension:

Update: We’ve suspended the 60 Minutes account while we investigate with Twitter.
Matthew Polevoy

Obviously, those messages posted did NOT come from 60 Minutes staff. This is serious matter and we’re treating it as such.
Matthew Polevoy

A Twitter account belonging to the Syrian Electronic Army has also been suspended, but, in what appears to be a rolling battle with Twitter, the group appears to have created a new one. It seems to be doing the same thing with Facebook, creating new accounts every time an old one is shut down. A message posted to the current Twitter account contained the following video that appeared to take credit for the attacks against CBS:

No comment yet from Twitter. Since it’s a Sunday night, it will be interesting to see if there’s any mention of the incident on “60 Minutes” tonight.

Of course, this is all taking place against the backdrop of a quickening of events with regard to the U.S. and Syria, so it’s no surprise that pro-Assad hackers would seek to make a statement of some kind and get attention. And while most of our attention has been focused on Boston, there’s been a lot going on.

Last week officials from the United Kingdom told the United Nations about concerns that chemical weapons had been used by the Assad regime. And that’s important because President Obama has often referred to that as a “red line,” though he hasn’t exactly spelled out what crossing it means. Presumably, it could mean military intervention.

Also this week, the Pentagon ordered 200 people into neighboring Jordan to help that country deal with the potential use of chemical weapons, and to prevent the fighting from spilling over its borders. Separately, the U.S. said it would double the amount of nonlethal aid that is going to the rebels.

So you can see why pro-Assad sympathizers might want to get your attention right now.

Some 75,000 people have been killed in the three-year-old civil war, and many thousands more have been displaced. It has effectively become a military stalemate, and a bloody one at that.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik