BOSTON (AP) — Hackers briefly defaced Harvard University’s website Monday, replacing the home page of America’s oldest university with an image of Syria’s President Bashar Assad together with a message accusing the U.S. of supporting the uprising against his regime and threatening retaliation by Syria’s “23 million mobile bomb.”
Harvard spokesman John Longrake 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 claiming “Syrian Electronic Army Were Here,” a reference to an apparent pro-Syrian government group that has conducted electronic attacks targeting opposition figures and their perceived backers. Hackers also posted an image of Assad in clad military uniform appearing in front of a Syrian flag.
The attack occurred the same day 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 claims on its website that they are 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 also a research fellow at the University of Toronto. “Our technical investigation also shows that the Army’s official website is hosted by SCS-NET, the ISP 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 email 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 the media and public opinion. The defacement 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.
“Do you support the war on Syria? If you are you, as well as the following Syria’s population of 23 million people. This means 23 million mobile bomb. Imagine what we could do,” according to the message posted on Harvard’s website.
“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 herald reforms in 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, but videos posted online by activists have offered a rare and crucial glimpse into the far reaches of the country where the military has been deployed to crush protests.
Assad’s regime tightly controls traditional media outlets in Syria, such as television, radio and newspapers. State-run channels often blame the unrest on a foreign-inspired conspiracy and Islamic extremists.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)