Marco Werman: Assad is not the only one threatening retaliation against any Western strike on Syria, so is the Syrian Electronic Army. The group has a record of hitting out at the US by the internet. Just last week it claimed responsibility for hacking The New York Times website and Twitter, and over the weekend, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the Marine Corps website, posting a letter that urged marines to support the Syrian government's side in the conflict. Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports on cyber security for the website Mashable.com. He recently interviewed members of the Syrian Electronic Army via email, but he's still not sure about their identity.
Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai: It's hard to know who they are exactly. Security experts think that they're not very sophisticated hackers, so they're probably like teenagers or undergrads who have good computer skills, but we're not talking about Chinese hackers here, we're not talking about spies. And right after is so far it's a propaganda war, you know, they're not after money, they're not trying to steal intellectual property. They're not trying to steal military secrets, they're not spying on the US as far as we know. All they've done so far is physically support the Assad regime and go after media organizations that they think are spreading misinformation about the civil war in Syria.
Werman: They're pro-Assad, do they take orders from the Syrian government?
Bicchierai: They're pro-Assad. It's unclear if they take orders from the government, and to be honest, it's even hard to know if the Syrian government cares much about these hacks because they don't really have any advantage in the war, they don't get any upper hand in an eventual even US attack. It's just a news and sport media organizations.
Werman: Was it clear to you, Lorenzo, that the Syrian Electronic Army are even Syrian?
Bicchierai: No, that's not even clear. They might be Syrian, they might live outside of Syria. Their English was really good. We were impressed with their English in their emails. It's hard because they must have a lot of members and they claim to have thousands of members, and 10 members that are very active with their operations.
Werman: Let's go through a few obvious questions that you put to members of the Syrian Electronic Army that you interviewed. Former US National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden told Reuters last week that the Syrian Electronic Army sounds like an Iranian proxy. Did you ask them what their connections are to Iran?
Bicchierai: I asked them if they had connections with anybody like Iran, Russia, China and they denied having any connections with them. And again, we should take all these answers with a grain of salt because they might be just lying and they have no reason to tell the truth. As far as the Iranians, perhaps they like the fact that they go after media organizations and they cause some nuisance and some economic damage, but again, I think Iranians are after bigger targets. A few years ago they were hacked with the Stuxnet virus allegedly built by the US government and the Israeli government. So I think they're going after those kind of attacks, not these social media attacks.
Werman: Now one of the big concerns right now is that the Syrian Electronic Army have threatened that if the US strikes Syria, they're gonna strike back. What does that mean?
Bicchierai: It's hard to know what it means. In our interview they even hinted at the fact that they had some covert operations that they haven't talked about. It's hard to know if they're telling the truth or just bragging about something that they're not even doing.
Werman: Right, it could be bluster, but remind us, Lorenzo, why a cyber attack if it were carried out and was big is cause for concern. What could it do?
Bicchierai: Well, you know, there's been a lot of talk in the last few months and the last year in general about you know, cyber 9/11 or cyber Pearl Harbor, but it's something that should always be taken with a grain of salt, again, because cyber attacks can cause a lot of damage, especially economic, but you know, they're not bombs, they will hardly harm anybody physically. It can cause economic damage, but it's not a war act.
Werman: I mean the Twitter account of the Associated Press was hacked last April. What economic repercussions were felt by that AP Twitter account being hacked?
Bicchierai: When the Syrian Electronic Army took over the AP Twitter account, they tweeted about a bomb explosion at the White House. And obviously, you know, everybody thought it was legitimate information. The Dow Jones plummeted before it was revealed that it was actually just a fake tweet from the Syrian Electronic Army. So this is a perfect example of how just a tweet can have serious repercussions in the real world.
Werman: Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, who writes on cyber security for Mashable.com, thanks for speaking with us.
Bicchierai: Thank you so much for having me.