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Harvard website hacked, defaced

Action seems tied to pro-Syria group

By Rodrique Ngowi
Associated Press / September 27, 2011

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Hackers briefly defaced Harvard University’s website yesterday, replacing the home page of America’s oldest university with an image of Syria’s president, Bashar el-Assad, together with a message accusing the United States of supporting the uprising against his regime and threatening retaliation by Syria’s “23 million mobile bomb.’’

John Longrake, a Harvard spokesman, said the morning attack appeared to be the work of “a sophisticated individual or group.’’ Harvard took down its hacked website for several hours to fix it.

The hackers posted a message saying, “Syrian Electronic Army Were Here,’’ a reference to a group that appears to support the Syrian government group and has mounted electronic attacks on opposition figures and their perceived backers. Hackers also posted an image of Assad clad in military uniform, in front of a Syrian flag.

The attack occurred the same day that two online activist groups said they hacked several official Syrian websites in the latest tactic to oppose the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on opposition supporters.

The Syrian Electronic Army says on its website that it is composed of young Syrians who voluntarily engage in online attacks against hostile websites and the enemies of Syria and that they are not affiliated with the Syrian government.

But a senior researcher with the OpenNet Initiative, which focuses on Internet freedom and involves scholars at Harvard, the University of Toronto, and the Canadian consultancy SecDev Group, says the online group has ties to the Syrian regime.

“Our technical research revealed that the domain name of their website was registered in May 2011 by Syrian Computer Society, which was headed by President Assad in the 1990s, before he became president,’’ said Helmi Noman, who is a research fellow at the University of Toronto. “Our technical investigation also shows that the [Syrian Electronic] Army’s official website is hosted by SCS-NET, the [Internet service provider] arm of Syrian Computer Society.

“On June 20, 2011, the president of Syria stated his appreciation for the SEA’s efforts and described it as a real army in virtual reality in a televised speech to the nation,’’ Noman said by e-mail from the Middle East.

The Syrian Electronic Army has defaced a large number of Western websites, most of which have no ties to the current political turmoil in Syria, Noman said.

The group targets high-profile Western websites to draw the attention of news organizations and public opinion. The defaced Web pages usually support Assad and condemn Western governments’ stand on the uprising in Syria.

In a departure from past hackings, the group posted a threat of violence against opponents of the Assad regime.

“Recent months have seen a rise in frequency and sophistication of these attacks, with hacking groups increasingly on the offensive and targeting news media, government, and education websites,’’ Harvard said in a statement.

“We are analyzing this event and will use the findings to improve our security practices for an environment that is seeing escalating threats.’’

Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who succeeded his father as president, was once seen as someone who could bring reform to Syria. Before he became president, he pushed youth to become more computer-savvy.

Now activists seeking to oust him are using the Internet as a weapon against his rule, uploading graphic videos of assaults on protesters and using social media websites to organize protests and relay messages.

Syria has banned journalists from reporting on the unrest.