The U.S. Marine Corps is the latest victim in a long line of high-profile attacks by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), sending a reminder to the international community that cyber warfare is alive and well. The pro-Assad group also took responsibility for disrupting service for The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Twitter just last week.
The group is notorious for hacking Western media. In April 2013, the SEA hacked the Associated Press’ Twitter account and falsely tweeted that the White House had been bombed. That tweet put the stock market at a $136 billion loss.
Since 2011, they’ve hacked websites belonging to Al Jazeera, Harvard University, LinkedIn and others. They’ve even hacked the Twitter account of BBC Weather. So why are they going after these particular news outlets?
The group appears to want to send a message to Western media about how it’s been covering the civil war.
In an email interview with ABC News last week, an alleged leader of the SEA said the group had been attacking the websites for major Western media outlets because the SEA believed they were spreading opposition lies about the Syrian conflict.
They also appear to be calling American military actions into question.
On Saturday, users who tried to access Marines.com were redirected to a webpage that read, “Obama is a traitor who wants to put your lives in danger to rescue al Qaeda insurgents,” along with a photo of people in military fatigues, holding banners saying things like, “I will not fight for Al Qaeda.”
But are these attacks more of a nuisance than a real threat? Analysts are on the fence about it.
Jason Healey, the director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative of the Atlantic Council (CSIS), says he’d be shocked if the SEA were actually able to affect a country’s critical infrastructure.
“The most important thing to remember is that we can find that no one has ever died from a cyber attack, ever.” Healey added, “I think the American public, when they see these headlines of cyber war, remember it’s not a real war. No one is really going to get hurt.”
But Jim Lewis, director and senior fellow at CSIS says Syria's cyber vandalism could turn into cyber attacks.
“The guys who are the poster child for this are the Iranians. Three years ago, the Iranians really couldn’t do anything and now they have the capability to launch disruptive attacks against the U.S.”
Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that the Chinese army had been hacking into U.S. infrastructure, and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said future attacks could plunge the U.S. into chaos – shutting down the power grid as well as electric, oil, gas, water, chemical and transit systems.
U.S. spending seems to back up Lewis’ claims. According to information Edward Snowden handed over to the Washington Post, the U.S. government allocates $4.3 billion of its so-called secret black budget to cyber assaults and countermeasures.
Still, Healey and Lewis do agree on one thing: cyber attacks are a part of modern-day warfare.
“It already is a normal part of war,” Lewis said. “People are doing it, lots of countries are developing the capabilities, there’s probably a dozen countries around the world are developing offensive cyber capabilities, meaning the ability to attack.”