About Claire McNear

Claire McNear is interning with the Freedom of Expression team at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She is a masters student in international public policy at UCL.

New Citizen Lab report: “Monitoring Information Controls in Iraq in Reaction to ISIS Insurgency”

A new report from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto takes a look at Internet monitoring in Iraq. Since violence led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) broke out in the country several weeks ago, the government has responded by cutting Internet access, first by blocking websites including Twitter and Facebook and then, on June 15, issuing orders for a total Internet shutdown in five of the nation’s 19 provinces.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • A total of 20 unique URLs were found to be blocked on three major Internet service providers (ISPs): Earthlink Telecommunications, IQ Net, and Newroz Telecom. The blocked sites include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, YouTube, WhatsApp, and WeChat, as well as popular VPN services including OpenVPN and StrongVPN.
  • The majority of the websites found to be unavailable corresponded with the list of that the Ministry of Communications ordered to be blocked on June 13. The ISP Newroz Telecom showed no signs of filtering, which “was expected, because this ISP serves the Kurdistan area, and reports have indicated that the shutdown and social media blocking orders did not include Kurdistan.”
Traffic from Akamai, a content delivery network, to Iraq, showing a sharp drop in traffic since the filtering orders from the Iraqi Ministry of Communications. Via the Citizen Lab.

Traffic from Akamai, a content delivery network, to Iraq, showing a sharp drop in traffic since the filtering orders from the Iraqi Ministry of Communications. Via the Citizen Lab.

  • The Citizen Lab also looked at seven websites “affiliated with or supportive of” ISIS. None were blocked. “Given that the insurgency was cited as the rationale for the shutdown and filtering,” wrote the authors, “this finding is curious.” This could suggest that the Maliki government is using the present crisis as an excuse to rein in broader social media around the country—whether or not it is related to ISIS violence.
  • Usage of Psiphon and Tor, which allow users to circumvent filtering, has soared in Iraq in recent days (though Tor use has since fallen slightly).
Directly connecting users of Tor in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

Directly connecting users of Tor in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

Daily users of Psiphon in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

Daily users of Psiphon in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

More information about the Citizen Lab’s analysis can be found in its report, Monitoring Information Controls in Iraq in Reaction to ISIS Insurgency.

Anonymous sets its sights on the World Cup

The hacker collective Anonymous has launched a series of attacks on World Cup sponsors and other affiliates, stealing data and taking over websites.

On Thursday, Anonymous took credit for taking down sponsor Yingli Solar, a Chinese solar power company, as well as breaching the network of Globo TV Brasil, Brazil’s largest television network, and publishing employee details online.

The group has also targeted a number of Brazilian governmental bodies, including the Ministry of the Environment and the Military Police of Sao Paulo State.

On Friday, Anonymous used a DDoS attack to bring down the 2014 World Cup site for several hours. Later that day, the group bragged about its alleged conquests: “Anonymous 145 x 0 FIFA.”

The hacks have been publicized under hashtags including #OpMundial2014, #OpWorldCup, and #OpHackingCup.

The cyber security company Symantec, which tracks cyber attacks, issued a notice on the eve of the World Cup warning potential targets of likely ploys, “including ‘run-of-the-mill’ distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, phishing/spear-phishing emails, intrusion and data-theft attempts, vulnerable software exploration, web application exploits, and possibly website defacement.”

Anonymous has been vocal about its plans to disrupt the World Cup. In February, several alleged Anonymous members told Reuters that they planned to go after sponsors as well as the Brazilian government during the tournament, noting that the massive audience would serve as a useful stage to protest the expense of the World Cup games—estimated at $14 billion—in a country where many citizens still lack access to basic services.

In May, Anonymous hackers broke into the Brazilian Foreign Ministry’s computers and leaked confidential emails. Stating that the group had “a plan of attack,” one hacker told Reuters that World Cup sponsors would be Anonymous’s prime targets, naming Coca Cola, Budweiser, and Adidas.

Despite the longstanding threats, Brazil was widely seen as a sitting duck for hackers, in large part because of its aging telecommunications infrastructure. “I don’t think there is much they can do to stop us,” one hacker told Reuters.

Last June, hackers replaced the FIFA World Cup homepage with a video showing protesters marching against public transit fare increases, which spurred mass protests around the country. In the video, the protesters, who chant “sem violencia” or “without violence” throughout, eventually encounter a line of police officers, who respond with rubber bullets and tear gas. That month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Brazilian authorities to rein in their use of force against peaceful demonstrators. In March of this year, officials in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo announced the rollback of the cities’ respective fare increases.

#IMWeekly: June 20, 2014

Hong Kong
On the eve of a referendum about voting rights this week, Hong Kong’s digital voting platform was hit by a massive DDoS attack. Today is the first of three days of voting for Hong Kong citizens, who will decide whether to offer universal suffrage, seen as a move that would weaken the influence of Beijing-sponsored candidates. Now in its fourth day, the DDoS attack is being called “one of the largest and most persistent DDoS attacks in the history of the Internet” by the company CloudFlare, which has been contracted to defend the voting platform and said that the attack reached a scale of 300Gb per second today. The attack is widely suspected to be the work of pro-Beijing groups, who oppose the referendum. The vote is unofficial, meaning that its results will have “no legal effect,” according to a statement by the Hong Kong government. More than 200,000 ballots have already been cast. For more information, see our earlier post on the attacks.

The spiraling violence as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sweeps across Iraq prompted the Maliki government to cut Internet access in the country. Last Friday, sites including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were blocked across the nation. Two days later, the government issued orders to ISPs to shut down all Internet access in five of the country’s 19 provinces. The Atlantic reported this week that ISIS is particularly effective at using “gaming Twitter” to push its message and recruit new followers. More information can be found in our blog post about the shutdown.

Twitter announced that it would no longer censor tweets deemed “blasphemous” by the government. In a statement, the company said that it had “re-examined the requests and, in the absence of additional clarifying information from Pakistani authorities, [had] determined that restoration of the previously withheld content is warranted.” Though hailed as a victory for freedom of expression in Pakistan, the decision drew attention to Twitter’s murky takedown policy, which it has declined to make public.

Reporters Without Borders reported that YouTube has been blocked and Google is only partly accessible in Tajikistan since June 12. Blocking has surged in the country over the last two years, usually around times of political tension like last November’s presidential election. On Monday, a Global Voices contributor and the publication’s former Central Asia Editor, Tajik-born Alex Sodiqov, was detained while conducting academic research in the eastern part of the country. The government has allegedly shown him on national television “in an apparent attempt to discredit both him and an opposition politician.” More information can be found in our earlier blog post on Sodiqov’s detainment.

United Kingdom
Revelations emerged this week that the British government has been using a legal loophole to scrutinize its citizens’ social media communications. Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, revealed that posts and other communications made on platforms like Facebook and Twitter are considered “external communications” because they’re routed through foreign companies. This means that even missives traded by British nationals in the UK, who are usually afforded significant privacy protections, are fair game for government interception—without a warrant—because the data leaves British shores before reentering.

#imweekly is a weekly round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Iraqi government shuts down Internet access in five provinces

As violence spreads across Iraq, the government has moved to curb Internet access around the country.

Iraq’s Ministry of Communication issued orders Sunday for a total Internet shutdown in five of the country’s western and central provinces, where violence from a Sunni insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is particularly intense.

This comes two days after access to Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube as well as communication platforms like Skype, Whatsapp, and Viber was cut across the nation. The government issued the shutdown order to ISPs, asking providers to “shut down the Internet totally,” according to a leaked copy of the ministry’s memo, which Arab citizen media organization Social Media Exchange printed and translated.

The move mirrors other Internet shutdowns in the region. Days after protests broke out in Tahrir Square in early 2011, then–Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered a shutdown that blocked web access in 88% of the country. In Syria, blocks of media sites like YouTube and Facebook were followed by a total Internet shutdown widely credited to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The shutdown may be difficult for the Maliki government to carry out, as Iraq’s market for ISPs is unusually fragmented. There are hundreds of providers across the country, some of which offer service via satellite, limiting potential government control. By comparison, just 10 ISPs were responsible for 69% of web traffic in the US in 2011, according to digital analytics company comScore.

Still, web traffic originating in Iraq has been markedly reduced since the government ordered the access cuts. Renesys, which tracks Internet connectivity, observed two major, hours-long outages before the regional shutdown, first on June 9 and again on June 12, both of which were confirmed by sources as government-sponsored.

Renesys 12.06.14

The militant group ISIS may be particularly adept at using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to broadcast its message and recruit new followers. The Atlantic’s JM Berger reports that the group has made use of a Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, which it uses to disperse news and spread messaging via posts to users’ accounts on their behalf. ISIS used Twitter over the weekend to share pictures allegedly depicting the mass execution of Iraqi security forces in Tikrit. The Atlantic reports that there has been a dramatic increase in posts on the ISIS app since its introduction in April, reaching 40,000 in a single day as ISIS marched into Mosul last week—a volume that pushed its posts to the top of results for queries like “Baghdad.” Tikrit and Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city, are both located in states whose web access has been cut.

Shared by @_3lawi, via Social Media Exchange.

Shared by @_3lawi, via Social Media Exchange.

Shared by @_3lawi, via Social Media Exchange.

Shared by @_3lawi, via Social Media Exchange.