Violent protests in Tunisia have turned into a cyberwar between government forces and the Anonymous hacker group, after Gmail, Facebook, Yahoo and Hotmail accounts of perceived dissidents were censored.
On Dec. 18, a group of youths gathered in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, protesting against unemployment and poor living conditions. The government cracked down, forcing discussion to move online through social networking forums.
"The authorities appear to have turned to even more repressive tactics to silence reporting. In the case of Internet bloggers, this includes what seems a remarkably invasive and technically sophisticated plan to steal passwords from the country's own citizens, in order to spy on private communications and squelch online speech," said Danny O'Brien, in a blog on the website run by Internet Advocacy Coordinator at Committee to Protect Journalists.
O'Brien writes in the CPJ blog that when Tunisians visit, say, Facebook, the page they receive has 10 extra lines of code, as compared to the normal login page originally sent by Facebook itself.
"When Tunisians hit the Facebook 'login' button, this extra code takes their user names and passwords, scrambles them, and then calls for another web page, with the scrambled data included in the new web address it requests," he added. "Tunisians don't see this new page, but their browser still attempts to load it, sending their private credentials across the Net."
Lina Ben Mhenni, a blogger and contributor to Global Voices Online was among online activists that could not access their e-mail and Facebook accounts.
"We have been experiencing censorship for more than one year now, we are deprived of our basic right to express ourselves freely; are facing a new serious problem. Sofiene Chourabi and Azyz Amami are experiencing the same problem now. They have been hacked; our privacy is not respected," Ben Mhenni wrote on her blog.
In response to actions by the Tunisian government, Anonymous, the group of hackers known for taking down websites opposed to Wikileaks, started a recruitment exercise for hackers to take down government websites.
Recently, Anonymous took down Zimbabwe government websites after the government sued and threatened local media for publishing the leaked cables. In Tunisia, Google and Facebook are yet to issue statements on any steps that will be taken to protect internet activists and journalists from the attacks.