CyberCivil War in Tunisia

Remember “Anonymous,” that loose band of hackers that a few weeks ago took up the role of avenging angels for Julian Assange’s Wikileaks organization, attacking the sites of the credit-card providers, banks, etc. that had refused to process its payments? Well, where are they now? Have they gone off to find more interesting off-line pursuits with the advent of the New Year?

Hardly. An interesting article today in Le Monde (no by-line) indicates that they’ve taken up a new target, not really Wikileaks-related and ordinarily so off-the-map in geopolitics terms as to usually never attract attention: Tunisia, specifically its government. A couple days ago I twittered in this space about “Trouble in Tunisia,” basically some violent police-student confrontations in a mid-sized city off to the west, near the Algerian border. But this Le Monde article shows that I didn’t even know the half of it. (Probably fortunately for me at the time: I had only 140 characters to work with!)

I know: “Who cares about Tunisia? I probably couldn’t even point it out to you on a map!” Well, from today’s piece there are at least three noteworthy tidbits that come to the surface:

  1. Facebook Rules: The Empire of Zuckerberg definitely has succeeded in setting up a firm outpost here at the northern tip of Africa. Tunisia is a smallish country, with a 10 million population – but 2 million of those people have Facebook accounts! (In Arabic overwhelmingly – tricky for keyboard input, as it’s read from right-to-left – although there are French-speakers as well from the colonial legacy.) Apart from the natural appeal arising from the opportunity for social media use, Facebook is mainly attractive to Tunisians because it’s one communication medium they have that is not watched like a hawk by the government.
  2. Great Firewall of Tunisia: Not that that government doesn’t put out the effort (specifically, the censorship officials, known as “Ammar”). It’s actually striking how similar the repressive Internet policy employed by those authorities is to the famed “Great Firewall of China”: there’s a similar filter in place at the national cyber-borders that acts to keep out content from blacklisted sites (including YouTube and Dailymotion) as well as content from anywhere containing certain keywords indicating “terrorism,” pornography, and the like. Indeed, back in 2008 the authorities set about simply blocking Facebook as well, but the article says the Tunisian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, intervened to stop it.

    He may have regretted that just last month, when a young sidewalk fruit-and-vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid (another Tunisian city, in the center of the country) actually set himself on fire (and eventually died) in protest at what he saw as unfair government confiscation of his goods. That set off demonstrations all over the country, naturally coordinated via Facebook, and with a wildly-popular Facebook group with the snappy name (translated) “Mr. President, Tunisians are setting themselves on fire!” as cherry on the cake. Naturally, the Ammar swung into action against Facebook again, proceeding to block access but not after (it is alleged) shutting down and/or defacing individual accounts through somehow getting their passwords.

  3. Here Comes Anonymous: And so we have Anonymous back in action here, in response to all this cyberabuse. What that has meant concretely is that over the past few days it’s been impossible to access virtually any official Tunisian government website, and that of a major bank there, Banque Zitouna, as well. Check that: they’ve either been completely inaccessible or they’ve been “accessible” where all that you see at the URL is a calling-card splash-screen from Anonymous.

Internet users in-the-know are aware that one key way to fight “Great Firewalls” of Internet blockage by national authorities is by employing so-called “proxies” that effectively hide where one is surfing the Internet from. But the Ammar is also aware of this, which is not to say they will be able to shut down all proxies; basically that’s now the terrain to which the cyber-battle has now shifted, even as the government is reportedly shutting down its sites entirely in order to fix them and presumably put them back on-line in some way so that they are not so vulnerable.

There you have it – Tunisia! Up to now, if anyone thought of it at all they probably had in mind its renowned Mediterranean beaches or maybe a WWII desert battle or two. Now it has become another bit of MidEast/Arab geopolitical instability – who’d have thunk it?

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