Information Warfare: The Angry Billions


August 21, 2012: In the last two years it's become quite apparent that many Arab governments are growing increasingly fond of Information War. Long known for aggressive use of phone taps, Arab governments have been increasingly keen to buy the latest in Internet monitoring and censoring software. Arab dictators would prefer that the Internet go away but the damn thing is so useful, especially to keep the economy going. It's also a popular source of entertainment for the henchmen and once you learn to use it for spying, it reveals much about your opponents.

But once the revolution begins the gloves come off and dictators learn to use the Internet for attacking the opposition. Since so many gangsters have adopted the Internet as a weapon, there are plenty of hacker mercenaries available who will, for a fee, disrupt rebel Internet efforts. Many of the younger members of the ruling class also have some hacking skills and are eager to help defend their lifestyle, especially if that effort doesn't involve dodging bullets.

Outside the Arab world most hackers side with the rebels (and are not employees of criminal gangs). This means dictators using the Internet as a weapon have to learn how to play defense as well. Everyone knows these tyrants are bad guys but it does not help their cause if local and foreign hackers find and publicize embarrassing emails (as has happened in Syria). Playing games with hijacked twitter accounts is not going to win, or defeat, the revolution but it does have a measurable impact on morale. Every little bit helps.

The Arab media are finding themselves in the cross fire, with their Internet communications often compromised. For this reason the Arab language media has relied more on the Internet to get the news out. The widespread use of mobile phones, especially the "feature phones" (that can handle basic web browsing) that most Arab users have, and the "smart phones" (like the iPhone, which are basically handheld PCs) that most Arabs aspire to, make it easy to reach most literate members of the population. Literacy is still lower in the Arab world but these days most Arab states are at least 70 percent literate. That's enough to make the Internet a major conduit for news and information about what pro-rebel individuals should do. 

While the critical role the Internet played during the Arab Spring surprised some in the West, it was a gradual development. Cell phone use has undergone most of its growth in the last decade and now there are over five billion of these devices in use. In effect, the mobile phones are everywhere and so, as a result, is the Internet.



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