June 14th, 2012
10:20 AM ET

Syria's 'cyber warriors' choose cameras over guns

As the talk of who's arming whom in Syria continues, there's one area the U.S. is arming Syria: with technological know-how.

CNN talked with Jay Newton-Small, who recently reported for TIME magazine on some of the technology help the U.S. is giving the Syrian rebels. Here's an edited version of that conversation.

CNN: What did you find out in your reporting?

NEWTON-SMALL: It's fascinating, because for months you've seen this proliferation of videos from behind Syrian lines. And you wonder, because Syria has got such control over their Internet, how are these videos getting out? Have the dissidents suddenly become expert hackers or have they hired expert hackers? And it turns out, actually, no.

And the U.S. isn't the only country doing this. Europe is also doing this. But there are a lot of NGOs that have been around Syria and who have been training these dissidents - they leave the country to do the training - in how to sort of encrypt their videos. How to overcome government firewalls. How to essentially get the message out when they aren't supposed to be able to get the message out.

CNN: How exactly is the U.S. helping these men and women go beyond the Syrian firewalls and uploading the video?

NEWTON-SMALL: There are three different pools of money, and there's $72 million the U.S. State Department has for what's called Internet Freedom Grants. And that's globally. So it could be helping Chinese dissidents, it could be helping Iran, it could be helping in Egypt. Any number of countries.

But a lot of this money has actually gone to Syria in recent months. And what it does is pay for the training of the dissidents. And it also works on software. And there's some really cool stuff that they're using out there, especially for mobile phones, which are the most vulnerable aspects of functioning in hostile environments because the governments can use the phones to track you. They can use the phones to bug you. And if you get pulled over with your phone, it's just a sort of built in treasure-trove of evidence against you. All the videos you've shot and all your e-mails.

And so what they've done is they've created this technology where, with the touch of a button, you can wipe out your phone completely. It's called a panic button. And that way the police won't see anything on it. There's another application where if you type in the wrong code, it presents a false screen and all kinds of false images. Even maybe one with a big picture of Bashar al-Assad, playing the national anthem on it or something.

So there are these really cool devices and gadgets that they've got now and it's helping them fight this war.

CNN: You use word "cyber warrior" to describe that?

NEWTON-SMALL: One of the dissidents we spoke with talked a lot about "I've got my AK-47 in one hand and I've got my camera in the other. And for a lot of these battles, they're wondering, 'Do I pick up my AK-47 and defend these protesters, or do I use my camera and film it and then put it up?'"

And it's become almost a question of: Is the pen mightier than the sword? And the dissident told us that most of the time it's actually the camera work that is more powerful and does more good and changes things more than any amount of firing of the AK-47.

CNN: You write, even as the Assad regime's army crushes the opposition on the ground, the dictator has been losing the war online. How do we know they're losing the war online?

NEWTON-SMALL: I think we have evidence of that. You look at the the ongoing PR battle that Bashar al-Assad has been running. I mean 14, 15 months ago, he was the darling of "Vogue" magazine and he was, you know, being embraced by Barbara Walters. And these days he's one of the most loathed men on the planet.

There are no foreign journalists allowed in Syria right now. So all the information we have coming out of Syria, all that footage that you just showed on CNN, that's coming from these dissidents. They are the ones who are getting the word out and showing what's really going on here. And that's incredibly powerful. It is essentially freedom of the press, freedom of speech.

CNN: What is the biggest challenge here as part of this program?

NEWTON-SMALL: I think the biggest challenge is certainly when I was talking to people, they were incredibly leery about [details] being kept secret, where the trainings are done being kept secret. And we had to change the names of all the dissidents we spoke with because obviously we don't want to put them at risk back at home.

And it's also getting over a stigma and people saying, "Well, because you're trained by the Americans, you're an American pawn." When, in fact, this training just enables them to show what they want to show. We're not coming to them with any kind of agenda. And America isn't saying, "We want you to promote American values here." They're just saying, "Here are the tools. You guys go and do whatever you want to do with it."

Read the full story at TIME.com: Hillary’s Little Startup: How the U.S. Is Using Technology to Aid Syria’s Rebels

Post by:
Topics: Syria • Time Magazine

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Prudence

    Must one be surprised at Assad's vicious crackdown on th rebels considering all the outside aid to rebels who want to kill him? What would any leader do, including those in the U.S.

    Considering the horrendous results of the Arab Spring, I personally doubt the competency of the leaders cowardly supporting Syrian regime change. I base this on their pathetic record, specifically the U.S. and it's effete State Dept.'s decades of total incompetence.

    June 14, 2012 at 10:36 am | Reply
    • Scott

      I would imagine it would be much like in Canada, where when faced with an outcry for seperation from the country they held a referendum vote to determine if succession from the country was to be enacted.

      If in America, demands for a new government would never be required to reach a civil war. Government would call for a new election vote before that point.
      If in the event that there were calls for seperation from the country in a state it would never reach a civil war. Likely just as in Canada there would be a referendum vote.

      We have developed systems to avoid the necessity of war to resolve such events. This becomes doubley so when in the case that the UN were to step in with a peace plan and demands for action to resolve the dispute. The American government would of course work with the UN's peace plan.

      There is no justification for what the Syrian Government is doing. They are just murdering for their own gain.

      June 15, 2012 at 10:28 am | Reply
    • You dummy

      Our leader would go after the terrorists, not door-to-door executing women and children. yes, executing with axes, knives, bullets.

      June 15, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply
  2. saudisucks

    having a panic button on your cell phone over here in the US would be an awsome "mainstreem" app as well.

    June 14, 2012 at 11:55 am | Reply
    • Scott

      But did you stop to think that weaping willow trees never really shed a tear???? Think about it!!!!

      June 15, 2012 at 10:33 am | Reply
  3. joe anon 1

    rebels? dissidents?

    no.

    terrorists and thugs and criminals and psychopaths sponsored, supported by the zionized, psychopathic west with mouthers giving us lie after lie.

    June 14, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
    • Patrick-2

      Thank you, joe. You nailed it good!

      June 14, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
    • ntayyan

      Who are you? You say they give you lies, well the whole idea is that they are getting you the pictures and videos and those don't lie. You do!

      June 15, 2012 at 5:53 am | Reply
    • saad alsaud

      call us whatever..the videos that we see everyday are evidence hhat your regime is desperate and dying. I just saw Iranian militia fighting in Homs along with Bashar proudly bragging about killing boys

      June 15, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
      • gazza

        Sure you did. Pass the hashish.

        June 15, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  4. 100 % ETHIOPIAN STRONGER!

    The Syria problem is the problem of Syrians, Iran, J-State, Russia and U.S

    Let US see who will be affected and who will profit, on the following:-

    Syrians > they keep getting confused and not knowing how to stop the fighting;
    Iran > is struggling to make sure Syria not to cooperate with the West, to protect its Two-Way passages: Gaza-Strip and Lebanon. If it looses these, Iran could be attacked easily by U.S and J-State.
    J-State > eagerly waiting until the Syrian opposition (their alliance) to win. If they win, J-State could attack Iran easily, by using the Two passages and Syrian border. If the As-sad regime remain undefeated, the war with Iran will be avoided and Iran will keep build anything it wants.
    Russia > is the main Billions of Dollars/Year business partner for both Syria and Iran. But, if the West guaranteed that much Money for Russia, Russia might switch its position.
    U.S. > Is in the middle of waves, between Russia, Syria and J-State. To convince Russia is not easier than to arm the Syrian opposition. However, in both ways, U.S. must spend Billions of Dollars.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      You believe everything CNN feeds you, do you?

      June 14, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
    • qq

      Forget it then. The US does not have billions of dollars to spend. We need to feed the poor in Appalachia before doing any of this.

      June 15, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  5. Andrey

    The whole stinky Arab Spring business was instigated through Internet. And not by US: but rather against US interests in the region. And it became the biggest al Qaeda success to date! They have carved whole countries to themselves with oil, money and human resource! All that US does now is just trying to minimize its losses: staying away and trying to keep its enemies fighting without letting any side winning. And Israel is trying to get US involved military only to minimize the risk of al Qaeda getting its hands on Syrian army as a result of some peaceful transition from Assad to Wahhabie.... It is all reaction and minimizing the disastrous to US position in general!
    Russia an China do not figure in the big picture. They just react – like everybody else!
    I do not know how serious US are about handing over any particular "Internet secrets" to Muslim extremists. But it looks like the terrorists already know whatever they need to set up US for a nasty surprise. And they will be trying it again and again until West finds the proper defense mechanisms.
    So do not try to be so smug! You can only fool those who want to be fooled: like most Americans want to hear how cool they are. So you can keep them happy. But even inside US there are plenty of people who realise what is happening!

    June 14, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      As for the article: US should send CNN and FOX News journalists to train "activists". Nobody else in the world does lies and propaganda better!

      June 14, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Andrey, do you think the reality is as cylincal as you depicted? Of course the interpretation of "reality" is relative, it's in the eyes of the beholder! I think you love to be amused, so let people believe in what they want. Sit back and watch!

      June 15, 2012 at 4:08 am | Reply
  6. Matt A.

    A picture or a video speaks a thousand words.

    June 14, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  7. Bobby Dias

    Sure, these are pictures- but the spoken word shoots like guns because the SPOKEN LIES may get them guns from others around the world. Believing the revolutionists in Syria will only get more children and women and old people killed by the new people trying to steal power from those elected in Syria- rightfully elected as stated by the United Nations who oversaw the last two Syria elections. Dictator Obama's killer friends are plain thieves of the votes of past elections.

    June 14, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Well said, Bobby. How true that is! I'm sick of all these right-wing journalists distorting the truth about Syria, drumming up feelings against Bashar al-Assad. Besides, why don't France intervene anyway? Evidently the French are not concerned do why should we be?

      June 15, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  8. Seri

    Islam is a complete way of life revealed for all of mankind, from the time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم until the Day of Resurrection. It encompasses rules for every sphere of life including spiritual, economic, social, judicial and political. As Islam came from the Creator of the universe, it is a superior system, free from the inconsistencies and disparities, which riddle man-made systems such as Capitalism and Communism.
    With this in mind, we may expect the Muslim world, whose population follows Islam as a religion, to be at the forefront of development and science, as they have at their disposal, a flawless system to regulate their affairs and drive them forward. However, what we find instead is that most of the Muslim world labours in poverty. It is no wonder then that the Muslim world has stagnated when it comes to scientific and technological research. Some of these countries do not even have basic infrastructure in place such as schools, hospitals and roads, which would enable them to have a standard of living considered necessary.
    In stark contrast, countries which have adopted the Capitalist economic system, appear to have a monopoly on scientific advancement and are at the forefront of the development of new technologies. The populations of these nations, on the whole have a high standard of living, with their basic needs catered for. This situation begs some very pertinent questions:
    – Why do the countries which follow the Capitalist ideology, appear to have advanced if they are following an incorrect doctrine?
    – Why has the Muslim world failed to make a contribution to science and development for the last 300 years?
    – Is it due to some inherent problem with the deen of Islam or with the Ummah? And what is the way forward for the Ummah?
    – Should the Ummah adopt the same system as the Western nations in order to reach the same level of advancement?

    June 15, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  9. Jewel

    Islam is a complete way of life revealed for all of mankind, from the time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم until the Day of Resurrection. It encompasses rules for every sphere of life including spiritual, economic, social, judicial and political. As Islam came from the Creator of the universe, it is a superior system, free from the inconsistencies and disparities, which riddle man-made systems such as Capitalism and Communism.
    With this in mind, we may expect the Muslim world, whose population follows Islam as a religion, to be at the forefront of development and science, as they have at their disposal, a flawless system to regulate their affairs and drive them forward. However, what we find instead is that most of the Muslim world labours in poverty. It is no wonder then that the Muslim world has stagnated when it comes to scientific and technological research. Some of these countries do not even have basic infrastructure in place such as schools, hospitals and roads, which would enable them to have a standard of living considered necessary.
    In stark contrast, countries which have adopted the Capitalist economic system, appear to have a monopoly on scientific advancement and are at the forefront of the development of new technologies. The populations of these nations, on the whole have a high standard of living, with their basic needs catered for. This situation begs some very pertinent questions:
    – Why do the countries which follow the Capitalist ideology, appear to have advanced if they are following an incorrect doctrine?
    – Why has the Muslim world failed to make a contribution to science and development for the last 300 years?
    – Is it due to some inherent problem with the deen of Islam or with the Ummah? And what is the way forward for the Ummah?
    – Should the Ummah adopt the same system as the Western nations in order to reach the same level of advancement?

    June 15, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Reply
  10. Curt

    This shows that race has nothing to do with terrorism, bottom line whoever is responsible for setting up random attacks are the people that should be hunted down.

    June 15, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Reply
    • Curt

      Spare me police with your speeding tickets. Arrest those that don't drive in the right lane on the regular with their slow driving.

      June 15, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Reply
      • Curt

        I could run this planet better in my sleep then most humans could 4 rizzle.

        June 15, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  11. infidel83

    I personally belive that the US, Russia, and China should just get it over with... invade the rest of the world and form 1 government – It will happen one of these days anyway...

    June 16, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
  12. poorkitty

    With "homeland security" hacking into every communication device in america, I could use a training course in how to keep the government from spying on me.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • Daily

      Why?
      What are you afraid they will discover?

      June 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  13. tgm

    Syria's "cyber warrirors choose cameras over guns":. Is that why "Syrian cyber warrior' has become a synonym for 'Onanist' ?

    June 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  14. Insanity

    Why are we even involved in Syria?? Let them finish each other off and then we will have fewer terrorists to deal with. No more American blood for Muslims...

    June 16, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply

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