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In Syria, hacking for politics, profit

Like a cyber-Robin Hood, a software pirate says he's acting ethically in the face of U.S. sanctions. But he doesn't mind Western clients.

July 11, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — Small, thin and pale, with a reddish beard, Abdul-Rahman Mahaini estimates that he has stolen millions of dollars' worth of software, hacking his way into the most complex programs in the world.

For a few bucks, the Syrian programmer will unlock the security codes for any program you send him via e-mail or online chat. But don't ask him to break into your ex-girlfriend's e-mail account or steal sales data from your competitor.

After all, the 26-year-old insists, he's an ethical pirate, a devout Muslim who prays five times a day and breaks into software only because his country is under U.S. sanctions and he has little choice.

Mahaini's life revolves around a software shop that he runs on Bahsa Street, Damascus' computer market. The business is a hive of awkward, chatty and bespectacled young men asking one another for obscure software programs and the codes and serial numbers to unlock them. Their voices quiet when a stranger enters.

They seem to orbit around Mahaini and his band of deputies -- a kind of cyber-Robin Hood and his Merry Men who steal from the information haves and redistribute the loot to the have-nots.

"If you try to deprive me," he says, "I will take it from you."

Piracy cost the U.S. software industry $48 billion in potential revenue last year, up from $40 billion the year before, according to the Washington-based Business Software Alliance. The Arab world, with areas where more than 90% of the software is pirated, is a haven for hackers such as Mahaini. They're driven by profit as well as the challenge of outfoxing some of the biggest brands in the global software industry: Microsoft, Adobe, Symantec, Cisco.

But there is also a political dimension to their piracy. In Syria, which is under tight U.S. banking sanctions that make online transactions and American software sales all but impossible, the hackers consider themselves righteous heroes.

"I can understand how a hacker who is following the hacker ethic could feel that way," says Richard Ford, an associate professor of computer science at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla. "There's this idea among hackers of information wanting to be free and that you should have access to software tools."

In Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, stealing or using pirated software is also viewed as part of the struggle against American power and policies seen as biased against Arabs and Islam.

"This is the way they're fighting back against American aggression," says Samir Hamade, a professor of information science at Kuwait University. "They say a lot of companies are giving money to Israel, so it's even better to use pirated software than licensed software since you're taking money from Israel."

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Still, even by his own standards, Mahaini treads ethically muddy waters. Though he says he won't break into your ex's e-mail, for a fee he's perfectly willing to steal software for Western businesspeople who live in countries where licensed software is available.

He acknowledges that he once agreed to hack into an expensive piece of manufacturing software for an Italian shoemaker in exchange for $10,000 in computer equipment.

He offers little justification for such business transactions, other than to say that he needs the money and relishes the challenge.

"The company took two years to design this program," he boasts. "I broke into it in three months."

Hamade says U.S. software manufacturers invite piracy by pricing their software too high for the Middle East. In contrast, India sells academic textbooks at discounts as high as 80% in the Middle East to avoid copyright infringement.

Software industry executives dispute that theory.

"We have not found that there is a specific correlation between the price of a software product and the rate of software piracy in a market," Cori Hartje, director of Microsoft Corp.'s anti-piracy initiative, said in an e-mail.

"Counterfeiters make fake products and sell it for whatever the market will bear. . . . Just lowering pricing does not necessarily result in less piracy; there is more to it than that."

Still, Mahaini has expanded his business to cash-strapped clientele in the West. He says his latest feat was to make pirated software mimic the original program so that it is eligible for automatic upgrades and support, which cost American companies even more money.

He says his customers include Americans, who transfer as much as several hundred dollars at a time to his account in exchange for bargains.

"We're not stealing," he says. "We're taking advantage of their weaknesses."

Asked how hard it would be to hack into Grand Theft Auto IV, the hottest video game on the market, he utters a "pfft" in contempt.

"I can do it tomorrow," he says, explaining that video games employ one of about 20 security methods, all of which he's mastered. "You're asking for something really cheap."

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