Hacking in Ben Ali’s Basement

Hacking in Ben Ali’s Basement

TUNIS, Tunisia — The humming of the censorship equipment that ran in Tunis is barely audible, but intimidating nevertheless. You can’t help but feel a certain awe as you stand in front of the modest-looking server that was used for so many years to curtail the online freedoms of Tunisians.

We’re at the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), the semi-public organization tasked with managing the technical aspects of Internet use in the country. After the January 14, 2011 revolution, the ATI, now under the leadership of activist Moez Chakchouk, promptly dismantled the Internet surveillance apparatus and replaced it with a policy of openness and freedom of access. The ATI is located in a beautiful villa in a quiet neighborhood of Tunis. Incidentally, said villa used to be Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali‘s house before he took over power in 1987.

This surveillance room is now becoming a communal hackerspace, a meeting place for all members of the Tunisian developer community and their friends. It’s called 404Lab, after the "404 error" displayed on a user’s Internet browser when attempting to access a blocked website. The workspace is a joint endeavor by the ATI and the Tunis community of programmers. Emphasizing the feeling of openness of the new organization, an Open Wireless connection — allowing free access to anyone within reach — has been installed. It’s all a universe away from what was here before.

The day I was there, some of the world’s best information security experts and coders from Tunisia and around the world came together in the basement. They were quite a change from the faceless Ben Ali era functionaries: This was a colorful and a brilliant group of people who were there for the #Hack4Freedom event, organized on the side of the third Freedom Online conference held in Tunis last week.

The organizers of the event, led by iilab Technology Director Aaron Huslage, decided to temporarily revive the old surveillance mechanisms as a way of bringing the bad old days of Ben Ali to life — taking care, however, to stage the recreation in a closed network, strictly cordoned off from the country’s real Internet traffic. It wasn’t easy — the manuals for these machines no longer exist — but after several days of configuration attempts, they succeeded in recreating the state of Internet surveillance under Ben Ali’s reign. They even loaded the same block list that was last saved on the server, theoretically barring access to the same list of websites that were blocked in 2007.

Then it was time to live up to the hackers’ challenge: Participants had to deploy every tool possible to bring down this surveillance system.

The machines were manufactured by U.S. company Netapp, which sold part of its surveillance business in 2006 to the infamous Blue Coat Systems, which has most of the world’s dictatorships (from Syria to Burma) on its client list. Even though the server used wasn’t the most recent release, the challenge was nevertheless daunting.

Lo and behold, the participants succeeded in crashing the server in about six hours.

For Huslage, the purpose of the Hack4Freedom challenge was "to open the door to hackers from Tunis to work with international freedom hackers, and to see and have access to this equipment and to each other. So it’s a convening point for a lot of efforts, within and outside of Tunisia."

There are few objective measures of how much distance a post-revolution country is putting between itself and its past. But opening up the core of the internet censorship apparatus to internet freedom activists and handing over the keys of the room that housed the censorship apparatus to the very bloggers and activists whose activities were tracked and censored has an immense moral and practical value.

Huslage was also keen to point out the political value of the event: "It was one of the most important events [in Tunisia] in a while, in terms of its potential to affect society. It showed a willingness, on the part of the ATI, that no other government in the region has had: to show its cards." Thus, in a way, the government is tying its own hands and burning bridges to the past, guarding against a return to the old ways as it forges new alliances looking. That’s not always easy, and it takes more than sheer goodwill for the government and activists to see eye to eye, but the effort is laudable.

The fight is far from over, however. Not everyone has embraced the paradigm shift in online surveillance. Three days later, at the closing ceremony of the Freedom Online conference, Tunisian Minister of Justice Nadhir Ben Ammou, who had either not been briefed on the topic of the conference or chose to disregard it completely, shared pearls of autocratic wisdom on free speech: "Each person should limit his or her own freedom so lawmakers won’t have to interfere so forcefully" — in other words, by installing censorship. Attendees looked at each other in disbelief.

The battle is not yet won.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.