restricted access 8 Control and Resistance
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8 Control and Resistance Attacks on Burmese Opposition Media Nart Villeneuve and Masashi Crete-Nishihata Burma is consistently identified by human rights organizations as one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Human rights violations occur with regularity, especially in connection with the country’s long-standing armed conflict. The ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is best known for its political prisoners and its systematic denial of universal human rights such as freedom of expression .1 The government’s efforts to silence dissent pervade cyberspace and its system of Internet control is one of the most restrictive in Asia. Despite the heavy hand that the regime wields over cyberspace, information communication technologies (ICTs) have provided Burmese opposition groups with the means to broadcast their message to the world and challenge the government. The ongoing battle between these two sides makes Burma a stark example of contested Asian cyberspace. The role of ICTs in this struggle can be framed by contrasting theories that view them either as “liberation technologies” that can empower grassroots political movements2 or as tools that authoritarian governments can use to suppress these very same mobilizations.3 This contestation is dramatically illustrated by the series of protests that erupted across the country in 2007—in a movement popularly known as the “Saffron Revolution .” During these protests, Burmese activists managed to bring the uprising to the world’s attention by making images and videos of the demonstrations and subsequent government crackdown available on the Internet. Realizing the potential political impact of these images, the government severed Internet connectivity in the country for nearly two weeks.4 This drastic action demonstrated that the regime had learned a significant lesson: although Burma’s technical filtering system was successful in censoring access to information coming into the country from opposition media Web sites, it was unable to prevent information from flowing out of the country to these sites for global consumption. As the one-year anniversary of the protests neared, the Web sites of the three main Burmese independent media organizations were attacked and effectively silenced. The Democratic Voice of Burma5 and The Irrawaddy6 were rendered inaccessible following 154 Nart Villeneuve and Masashi Crete-Nishihata a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. While these attacks were under way, Mizzima News7 was also compromised and its Web site was defaced.8 Periodic attacks on Burmese opposition media sites continued through 2009 and 2010.9 In late September 2010, around the third anniversary of the Saffron Revolution, Burmese opposition media were once again silenced by a series of DDoS attacks and Web site defacements.10 The timing of these attacks and the content of the messages in the Web site defacements indicate a political connection, and although the identity and capabilities of the attackers—as well as any relationships they may have with the government—remain unknown, it is widely believed that the government played a role in the attacks. This belief prevails because the Burmese government has consistently demonstrated an interest in controlling and censoring the communications environment in the country. This chapter explores the complexities of information control and resistance in Burma based on an investigation conducted by the Information Warfare Monitor (IWM)11 on the attacks launched against the Mizzima News Web site in 2008. Through technical evidence obtained from our investigation and field research conducted in Burma, we were able to uncover and analyze the characteristics and capabilities of the suspected attackers. We found that these attacks are consistent with government and military interest in information control and censorship of the Internet as well as a pattern of ongoing attacks against Burmese political opposition. However, they cannot be conclusively attributed to the military or government of Burma. Our investigation found that the attack on the Mizzima News Web site appeared to have been a result of a combination of two factors: political motivation and the availability of a target of opportunity. The attackers are certainly unfavorable toward the Burmese opposition media, but cannot be simplistically characterized as “progovernment” either. Their primary motivation appears to be nationalism and a belief that the opposition media demean the public image of their country. The timing of the attacks provided a strategic utility that would normally have been beyond the attackers’ means. While Burma maintains a robust Internet censorship system that prevents its citizens from accessing alternative news media, these attacks effectively prevented global access to opposition media sites during a sensitive period. We proceed by...