Jun 16 2009

Cyber-War vs the Mullahs

Social hacktivists armed with little more than Twitter accounts, web browsers and an earnest desire to stick it to their perceived oppressors are hitting out at the Iranian regime’s online presence. It’s going to take much more than cyber warfare to bring down the mullahs, but it is an intriguing sideline in this protest against a regime accused of subverting democracy.

So far, official Iranian government websites and propaganda outlets including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‚Äôs Official Blog, Office of the Supreme Leader, Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the vile scab-ridden Iranian Press TV and a long list of others are either under attack, unresponsive, or providing only “Service Unavailable” messages (Zero Day). The hacktivists’ tactics are simple: use Twitter to organize and enable large groups of instant hackers through use of automated tools that overload websites with repeated web-page refresh requests.

It’s far from clear whether the cyber-offensive, supposedly launched by the Iranian opposition and supported by hackers outside Iran, will cause enough disruption to give the regime real cause for concern. The leadership and government bigwigs that have already shown willingness to shoot, jail and torture protesters who are demonstrating against a perceived electoral miscarriage (NP), may not feel overly inconvenienced by the online disruption.

Hijacking online communications as a means to spread the opposition message is a tactical victory. The question is whether they’ll be able to do far more. If hackers are able to shut down critical infrastructure, and if it turns out that there’s a mass movement of protesters across the country, not just in Tehran, just waiting for the chance to beat down the leadership, then this initial hacktivism could turn out to be a historic victory of Web 2.0 tools over tyranny.

By way of comparison, those who know a bit about the increasing capabilities of cyber-warriors point to attacks on critical infrastructure and government sites in Georgia last year, leading up to Georgians going toe-to-toe with the Russians (AFP). But the reality is that Georgia was not deterred from sending forces into South Ossetia after the cyber attacks started. And Georgia didn’t ultimately give up because the hackers killed the electricity. It was an overwhelming mass of Russian army soldiers, airpower and tanks that brought the tiny Eastern European country to its knees. The cyber-attacks were a sideshow while the real blood-and-guts war was happening.

The point is that even if the hacktivists in and outside Iran can step up the pace and severity of attacks to do things like disable police and military infrastructure, these tactics won’t have lasting effect without a mass movement willing to face down attacks with their own brand of violence.

Riot cops with clubs and guns don’t need much technology to do the dirty work of the regime. It’s not at all clear that the Iranian opposition will have the stomach for the kind of knock-down, drag-out fight required to oust a thuggish government.

Mind you, the regime is doing an excellent job of creating a resistance movement willing to spill blood through its harsh crackdown, and undoubtedly social media tools are helping incite the masses with live reporting of atrocities against protesters. The question is whether Iranians in the rest of the country, particularly the countryside, will also be seeing these images.

The mullahs won’t be brought down by a ragged band of hackers, bloggers and Tweeps. But there is a chance that Web 2.0 will make this protest against the government go viral in a way that the leadership – and quite possibly, the opposition – never expected.

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One response so far

One Response to “Cyber-War vs the Mullahs”

  1. Terry Glavinon 16 Jun 2009 at 10:34 am

    Excellent post, Jonathon. Our comrade Arash Kamangir has been too busy with his Persian mirror to do much reporting in English, which is too bad, for us.

    http://persian.kamangir.net/?cat=71

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