Syrian hacker army could be advancing with Iranian help

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Increased activity and higher-profile targets have caused experts to suspect that the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a pro-Assad hacking force, has been getting help from Iranian cyber experts.

Foreign Policy reported in detail the force’s shift from being “simple vandals,” which has marked its work since the group began in 2011, to a more sophisticated hacking force capable of taking out high-profile and high-security targets.

On Monday, the Assad hacking team attacked the U.S. Marine Corps recruitment page and redirected all visitors to another website, where a letter argued that the U.S. and the Syrian government are “fighting a vile common enemy” in the Syrian rebels.

As they’ve grown more active, they’ve also been able to redirect users from the New York Times website, hacked the Washington Post, and have even taken control of the Associated Press’s Twitter feed — when they tweeted out a report that the White House had been bombed.

They claim credit for shutting down Twitter and The Huffington Post in just the last week, in addition to The New York Times. Whether or not the hacking contingent was responsible for all the U.S. cyber problems, Foreign Policy reports that their capability has increased.

In their continued blast of cyber attacked, the SEA has gained access to private accounts and private data, which Adam Myers, Vice President of Intelligence for computer security company CrowdStrike, said could be a sign that they’re being trained.

“That would indicate that they’ve been improving [their methods] over the past couple of months,” Myers told Foreign Policy. “I would not rule out some outside influence giving them pointers,” Myers suggested, adding that “the likely candidates would be Iran.”

The Washington Post also reported increasingly advanced tactics, including Trojans and Voice over IP services. 

And with President Obama’s vow to launch military strikes against the Assad regime, the pro-Assad hackers have threatened to launch cyberattacks right back.

The SEA told via email that the organization targeted news media outlets that the hackers believe report poorly about the ongoing Syrian civil war. They warned that U.S. government websites will be attacked if airstrikes are conducted.

“We have many surprises if they are going to hit Syria,” the SEA representative warned.

A U.S. official scoffed at the threat last week. “It’s clearly a nuisance, but its tactics aren’t all that sophisticated,” the unnamed source told NBC.

Yet officials are still preparing for the possibility, warning both federal agencies and private companies that cyberattacks from Syrian hacker groups, of which the SEA is only the most prominent, could be ignited by a U.S. decision to proceed with military action.

Foreign Policy described the SEA as just one part of what has grown into a “digital battlefield” within Syria for pro-Assad hackers and spies.

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