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Tunisia: Anonymous vs Ammar – Who Wins the Battle of Censorship?

This post is part of our special coverage of Tunisia Revolution 2011.

Anonymous' poster calling activists to join the attack on Tunisian government sites

The Tunisian censor, commonly known as Ammar, continues to wreak havoc on activists’ accounts, in a country that has been witnessing a wave of protests since the middle of December. Just today, activists claimed that the government has hacked into their email accounts, accessing their blogs and social networking sites, and disabling them. The move seems to have come in retaliation to an attack by Anonymous, which has targeted vital Tunisian government sites and gateways.

The attack on activists’ accounts is not something new to Tunisia and its cyber activists. The country is described as both a police state and an Enemy of the Internet and an oppressor of mainstream media as the World Press Freedom Index gave it a score of -10 in 2010, where it fell from 154th place to 164th worldwide.

“The country is continuing to drop into the Index's lower rankings because of its policy of systematic repression enforced by government leaders in Tunis against any person who expresses an idea contrary to that of the regime,” states the report.

According to Gawker, Anonymous, the loosely-organised band of hacker activists and vigilantes, attacked the government sites, including that of the president, prime minister, the stock exchange and several ministries, in protest against Tunisia's censorship of access to whistle-blower site Wikileaks, following the Cablegate affair, and for the country's repressive censorship.

On AnonNews.org, an online forum for the ‘hacktivists,’ the following announcement in what is now know as Operation: Tunisia, was made:


A time for truth has come. A time for people to express themselves
freely and to be heard from anywhere in the world. The Tunisian
government wants to control the present with falsehoods and
misinformation in order to impose the future by keeping the truth hidden
from its citizens. We will not remain silent while this happens.
Anonymous has heard the claim for freedom of the Tunisian people.
Anonymous is willing to help the Tunisian people in this fight against
oppression. It will be done.
It will be done.
This is a warning to the Tunisian
government: attacks at the freedom of speech and information of its
citizens will not be tolerated. Any organization involved in censorship
will be targeted and will not be released until the Tunisian government
hears the claim for freedom to its people. It's on the hands of the
Tunisian government to stop this situation. Free the net, and attacks
will cease, keep on that attitude and this will just be the beginning.

A list of the attacked government sites can be found here.

And according to activists on the ground, the government retaliated by ‘hijacking’ the email accounts of activists, including lawyers and journalists, and accessing their blogs and social networking sites, such as on Facebook, and deactivating them.

Tunisian blogger Astrubal, co-editor of Nawaat.org, says many indications point at a coordinated attack launched by the Tunisian government in an attempt to break into activists’ private accounts. He writes [Fr] :

Il s’agit vraisemblablement d’une campagne destinée surtout à subtiliser les log et mot de passe des utilisateurs afin de fouiner dans leurs messages privés. Par ce moyen, la police, en quête de renseignements, chercherait à s’infiltrer dans les comptes des utilisateurs pour savoir qui communique avec qui et sur quel sujet. Il s’agirait en somme de chercher à démanteler ces réseaux de journalisme citoyen qui se sont constitués spontanément suite aux mouvements de contestation de Sidi-Bouzid.

Depuis les événements de Sidi-Bouzid qui ont montré, en effet, l’importance des réseaux sociaux quant à la circulation de l’information, des perturbations récurrentes du réseau ont été constatées. Pour le cas de Facebook, les connexions en HTTPS notamment pour se logger sont souvent impossibles à établir. Le pouvoir tunisien n’a pas osé, comme il l’a fait par le passé, bloquer les services du réseau social le plus utilisé par les Tunisiens. Cette fois-ci, il semble qu’il chercherait plutôt à atteindre directement ceux qui l’utilisent pour faire circuler l’information, plutôt que de s’attirer les foudres de tous les utilisateurs par un blocage total de Facebook.

En tout état de cause, nous rappelons à tous les utilisateurs de Facebook et, a fortiori, s’ils se connectent à partir de la Tunisie : NE VOUS CONNECTEZ JAMAIS à partir d’une page non sécurisée. Même si vous n’avez rien à cacher, n’oubliez jamais que vous êtes également dépositaire de la confiance des personnes qui vous envoient des messages privés. Même si, vous, ça vous est égal que l’on puisse fouiner dans vos messages privés, on se doit, tout un chacun, d’honorer la confidentialité des messages privés que nous recevons.

This campaign is likely aimed at stealing passwords and logins of users to browse through their private messages. The police is seeking to break into the accounts of users to know who communicates with whom and on what subject. With the end objective of dismantling these networks of citizen journalism that formed spontaneously following the protests in Sidi Bouzid.

The events of Sidi Bouzid, have confirmed the importance of social networks in allowing a continuous flow of information. But ever since the events started, recurrent disruptions of the network were noticed. In the case of Facebook, connections, including the use of HTTPS (secured connection) to log in, were often impossible to establish. The Tunisian regime has not dared, this time around, to block the whole Facebook service, the most popular social network in Tunisia. This time, the government seems to target more specifically those who use it to circulate information.

In any case, we remind all users of Facebook, especially if they are connecting from Tunisia: DO NOT CONNECT from an unsecure page. Even if you have nothing to hide, never forget that you were entrusted by the people who send you private messages. Even if the idea that someone can break into your private email account doesn't bother you, you must respect the confidentiality of the private messages you receive.

News of the attack on the activists’ accounts soon found its way to social media.

@SBZ_news reports:

Bloggers are under fire of the Tunisian cyber police, they are trying to hack every one who supported or

Mauritanian activist Naser Weddady tweets:

Based on feedback from ppl in a pattern emerges: hacked Facebook Accts were connected to Yahoo mail accounts

And adds:

activist @ & journalist @ r being targeted coz of speaking to foreign media

While @spiralis1337 warns:

Tunisian police hacking Facebook accounts to gather intel Keep yourself safe

And Seifeddine Ferjani adds:

the hacking of emails and Facebook accounts, has confirmed the the Benali government is a criminal enterprise

And if this is not enough, in a further development, @nayzek tweets:

RT @ haha Now officials (?) seem to be calling ppl individually to ask them stop sharing videos on FB :)

For tweets on Operation: Tunisia, check the hashtag #optunisia
And for more tweets on Sidi Bouzid and Tunisia, check the hashtags #SidiBouzid and #Tunisia, which are being updated frequently with the latest developments on the ground.

This post is part of our special coverage of Tunisia Revolution 2011.

The translation from French was provided by Hisham.

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