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The Many Faces of Cyberwar: Syria Edition

Like many similar trendy tech neologisms in recent history, ‘cyberwar’ as a concept may be getting overloaded to the point of meaninglessness. The mere inclusion of the tired “cyber-” prefix all but seals the term’s eventual fate. The word feels dated out of the gate.

But it doesn’t mean it’s completely useless. Warmaking—if done right—is done at the leading edge of technological change, so it’s no surprise that internet technology is being frantically used and exploited by military, intelligence and security agencies in dizzying ways. We need a catchall to encompass all these efforts.

One common definition of cyberwar is likely to conjure up images of teams of government hackers trying to compromise and disrupt high value computer networks of an opposing power. VM has been covering the cyberwar thus defined between Iran and the West for a while now. And most recently, the term has been applied to the social network-fueled PR campaigns being waged by the Israeli Defense Force and Hamas over the Gaza War.

But it’s important to remember that there’s a ‘cyberwar’ component to how run-of-the-mill security and intelligence services operate. The targets in this kind of war are not governments or institutions, but individuals. A case study which illustrates the point: the efforts of pro-Assad forces in Syria.

Taymour Karim didn’t crack under interrogation. His Syrian captors beat him with their fists, with their boots, with sticks, with chains, with the butts of their Kalashnikovs. They hit him so hard they broke two of his teeth and three of his ribs. They threatened to keep torturing him until he died. “I believed I would never see the sun again,” he recalls. But Karim, a 31-year-old doctor who had spent the previous months protesting against the government in Damascus, refused to give up the names of his friends.

It didn’t matter. His computer had already told all. “They knew everything about me,” he says. “The people I talked to, the plans, the dates, the stories of other people, every movement, every word I said through Skype. They even knew the password of my Skype account.” At one point during the interrogation, Karim was presented with a stack of more than 1,000 pages of printouts, data from his Skype chats and files his torturers had downloaded remotely using a malicious computer program to penetrate his hard drive. “My computer was arrested before me,” he says.

That’s the lede to a very good feature in BusinessWeek which is well worth your time this weekend. Read the whole thing.

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