Anti-government hackers have been fighting back against online censorship in the online battle taking place in Sudan
At the beginning of this month, Freedom House released its annual Freedom on the Net publication with a heavy Sudan chapter authored by Girifna, a pro-democracy Sudanese group. The chapter stated that Sudan’s internet is “Not Free” based on arrests and harassments of citizen journalists as well as restrictive laws that threaten journalists and activists who write freely on the internet.
Facebook: the main target
The cyber-harassment started a few months ago for Shreef Diaa, a student activist with a strong online presence, when he could not sign on to his Facebook account.
“I thought it was a network problem, but then my friends were confused to why I have the picture of the president as my profile picture,” said Diaa adding that he then realised that his account had been hacked.
Diaa’s account was then used to write degrading posts about different political figures and harass his female friends with obscene private messages.
“Luckily a friend of mine was able to regain access of my account and help me increase its security,” said Diaa.
For a journalist or a cyber- activist to change their email or Facebook account in Sudan is considered normal. Many share messages through their accounts stating that they have been subjected to failed or successful hacking attempts.
On October 21, a Sudanese journalist working for the UAE-based Al-Arabiya channel, Khalid Ewais, reported on his Facebook account that it had been subjected to a “failed hacking attempt.” In June 2013, Khalid Ahmed, a journalist with the daily Al-Sudaninewspaper reported that his email was hacked and an article was published under his name which brought him serious charges by the armed forces.
The cyber jihad: one jihad, many techniques
Somia Hundosa, a Sudanese journalist based in Egypt, has become an expert on the different hacking methods used by the alleged Cyber-Jihad unit, part of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), after falling victim to several hacking and cyber-harassment attempts.
“Hacking for me has happened through my email, they hacked my email when they found it in articles I published online,” said Hundosa adding that if you are a female, your account is used to send pornographic material to force you into silence.
In 2011, as Sudan’s protest movement began using the internet to share information and plan protests and silent sit-ins, Alan Boswell of Mcclatchy reported that: “Pro-government agents infiltrated anti-government sites, spreading disinformation and looking to triangulate the identities of the chief organisers. They’d barrage Facebook pages with pornography, then report the pages to Facebook for violating the rules.”
The pro-government agents have become even more persistent, dubbed as the cyber-jihadists, they have been trained in India and Malaysia, as Girifna reported in the Freedom on the net report.
Hundosa found herself locked out of her account before and even received a threat from the Facebook administration.
“I found myself temporarily banned from Facebook before because I was reported, in 2011, after posting pictures of the war in Southern Kordofan, Facebook told me that I posted inappropriate content,” said Hendousa adding that she had to remove the pictures so her page wasn’t closed down.
Hundosa was arrested last November for five days and was interrogated by a security agent she claims is responsible for the “blogs and cyber security” unit.
“In 2010, I was told by a security agent that my Facebook page was reported because I had a picture without a scarf and if I don’t stop posting such pictures, they will make me bald,” said Hundosa whose hair was shaved during detention in November 2012.
The website of Girifna, the publisher of the report, was recently subjected to an unsuccessful hacking attempt.
“The hacking attempt on the website was an “injection” attack. It’s a way a tricking regular forms into acting as portals into the site’s database,” said Girifna in an email.
Girifna’s media team explained that the hacking attempts on the social media platforms are usually “phishing”.
“This targeted phishing tricks the user into giving up their password by going to a fake website,” said Girifna whose Facebook group which preceded its current page was hacked in 2011. The group has tried to regain the page, but to no avail.
A 26-year-old who spoke to Doha Centre for Media Freedom anonymously confirmed the presence of the cyber-jihadists who are sometimes called the “electronic resistance unit” among other names.
“They are usually stationed at universities and create accounts usually with a girl’s name and picture and discredit information on pages or to add activists to gain access to their pages,” said the anonymous source, who has worked as part of this unit.
The new Facebook pages created normally don’t have a lot of friends or information, but sometimes, the pages have the names and profile pictures of someone in your circle.
“You find that a new account under your friend’s name wants to add you and it has their profile picture and information, you accept their friendship request, only to find that it is a fake account,” said Hundosa.
Declaring an Online War
In June 2012, as Sudan was witnessing a wave of anti-government protests, the Internet Hacking Activist group hacked a number of government websites which Girifna wrote aims “to fight back the Sudanese electronic jihad unit which aims at hacking Sudanese Activists’ emails, Facebook, Twitter accounts and the major opposition websites.”
Similarly, during another wave of protests in September/early October 2013, an anonymous group which tweeted under the name of AnonSudan on Twitter, said that it hacked several government websites.
“main Gov Site http://sudan.gov.sd DOWN is as we promised, more than 6 hours now,” tweeted AnonSudan, (which could potentially be the unofficial Sudan chapter of Anonymous) on September 26. The same day, the websites of the states of Khartoum, River Nile state, North Kordofan, Red Sea, North Darfur and Sennar were hacked.
Moreover, ministerial websites were hacked such as the Ministry of Education as well as the Presidency’s website and the website of the traffic police.
AnonSudan tweeted proudly that it took down 149 websites affiliated with the government of Sudan.
It remains unclear how much it cost to bring back the websites and secure them from further hacking attempts, but it is clear that there is an online war and both sides are arming themselves with further training and skills to incur more financial and social cost to each other.
Maybe journalists such as Somia Hundosa or Amel Habbani will not have not change their email addresses after they are hacked, with the new digital infrastructure that groups like AnonSudan promise to give.
“If the media did not pay attention to #Sudan Revolts, we will raise the bar,” tweeted AnonSudan during the protest movement last September.
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