Foreign Policy Blogs

Snowden: NSA, not Assad, knocked out Syria’s Internet in 2012

Edward Snowden. Source: ABC

Edward Snowden. Source: ABC

According to new information released by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, the pro-Assad and rebel groups can finally stop pointing fingers over a country-wide Internet blackout in Syria in 2012.

The blackout struck in November 2012, 20 months after the Syrian conflict began. At the time, Bashar al-Assad was identified as a likely candidate for the outage — a blog on The Washington Post’s site noted that “most technology experts believe Syrian authorities caused the blackout to try to impede the rebels’ interactions and online broadcasts of the fighting.” Syrian authorities, many speculated, were likely using methods similar to those used by Egypt in 2011 to cut off its Internet access — messing with routing tables to send data into a cyber tunnel to nowhere.  Assad just happened to be more thorough about it — far fewer requests trickled out.

That analysis made sense: Syria’s civil war has been incredibly thoroughly documented — or, in the case of Assad’s infamous Instagram, not at all.

Now, two years later, Snowden revealed it was actually an error by the agency, specifically one of its hacking units dubbed the Tailored Access Operations. According to a profile on Snowden published today in Wired:

One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO—a division of NSA hackers—had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead—rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet—although the public didn’t know that the US government was responsible. (This is the first time the claim has been revealed.)

Inside the TAO operations center, the panicked government hackers had what Snowden calls an “oh shit” moment. They raced to remotely repair the router, desperate to cover their tracks and prevent the Syrians from discovering the sophisticated infiltration software used to access the network. But because the router was bricked, they were powerless to fix the problem.

Fortunately for the NSA, the Syrians were apparently more focused on restoring the nation’s Internet than on tracking down the cause of the outage.

In addition to revealing the truth about a failed operation, Snowden’s description of the event raises some important questions. Have technical slip ups by the NSA caused other similar outages, particularly in areas of conflict and instability? Are we at risk of making the same errors again, in Syria or elsewhere? What deleterious effects did TAO’s mistake have, and what do those effects say about our role in the Syrian conflict? Finally, are we playing fast and loose with our cyber attacks, plunging ourselves into far too many situations we have no control over?

It’s hard, if not impossible, to answer any of those questions with certainty. But you can read Wired’s profile here.



Hannah Gais
Hannah Gais

Hannah is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association, a nonresident fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and the managing editor of Her work has appeared in a number of national and international publications, including Al Jazeera America, U.S. News and World Report, First Things, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, Truthout, Business Insider and Foreign Policy in Focus.

Gais is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, where she focused on Eastern Christian Theology and European Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais