recommended reading

Snowden: NSA Caused Massive Internet Blackout in Syria

Demonstrators rally at the U.S. Capitol to protest spying on Americans by the National Security Agency.

Demonstrators rally at the U.S. Capitol to protest spying on Americans by the National Security Agency. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The National Security Agency inadvertently brought Syria's Internet to a screeching halt nationwide in 2012 after a failed attempt to hack into the war-torn country's communications data, according to a new claim by Edward Snowden.

The fugitive leaker, in a sprawling new interview with Wired, said that NSA agents attempted to exploit a core router of a major Internet service provider in order to tap into Syria's emails. But the plot backfired, bringing the country's Internet down for days amid an escalating civil war.

When he went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton in early 2013, Snowden was already disillusioned with the government's surveillance practices but "had not lost his capacity for shock," writes James Bamford:

One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO—a division of NSA hackers—had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead—rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet—although the public didn't know that the U.S. government was responsible. (This is the first time the claim has been revealed.)

Inside the TAO operations center, the panicked government hackers had what Snowden calls an "oh shit" moment. They raced to remotely repair the router, desperate to cover their tracks and prevent the Syrians from discovering the sophisticated infiltration software used to access the network. But because the router was bricked, they were powerless to fix the problem.

Fortunately for the NSA, the Syrians were apparently more focused on restoring the nation's Internet than on tracking down the cause of the outage. Back at TAO's operations center, the tension was broken with a joke that contained more than a little truth: "If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government has periodically turned off Internet services in specific areas before launching an attack, according to The Washington Post. On at least three occasions, the sporadic outages, which have continued into this year, were nationwide.

It is unclear which blackout Snowden is referencing, but any blackout would have the potential to disrupt communications among fractured rebel groups and aid the Assad regime.

During one massive, prolonged blackout in November of 2012, the Associated Press, a number of other news outlets, and cyberwarfare experts concluded the Syrian government was likely to blame. Syrian authorities, meanwhile, pointed the finger of responsibility at rebel insurgents. Other theories for how the blackout started circulated widely, but few appear to have suggested the U.S. government could be the culprit.

The November blackout was seen as the worst to hit Syria since its civil war began in early 2011. During the Internet shutdown, Reuters reported that Assad's forces were planning a "military showdown around Damascus."

U.S. officials also attempted to provide Syrian opposition forces with an alternative to circumvent the blackout, and berated those thought to be responsible for bringing down the country's Internet.

"We condemn this latest assault on the Syrian people's ability to express themselves and communicate with each other," a State Department spokeswoman said at the time, noting that it had provided 2,000 units of communications gear to some rebel groups.

Also in the Wired interview, Snowden claims to have witnessed a program, known as MonsterMind, under development that would hunt for the origins of a potential foreign cyberattack. Once threatening malware was detected at a point of entry, MonsterMind "would automatically fire back," a level of aggression which Snowden said gave him concern because "attacks can be spoofed."

Snowden, 31, is living in Russia, where last week he earned a three-year residency permit after his one year of asylum expired. He faces espionage charges in the U.S. for leaking classified government secrets.

The NSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from Nextgov.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

    Download
  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.