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In Syria, hacking for politics, profit

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.”

How cheap to break into Grand Theft Auto IV, produced by New York-based Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. and selling for about $60 retail?

“Two dollars,” he says over a late-night coffee at a downtown Damascus cafe.

Mahaini began fiddling with computers at 14 and quickly realized that he had a gift for code. He didn’t bother with college, ending his education with high school, but he pored over computer programming books -- also pirated, he notes.

His teachers are the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer manuals, which he analyzes to figure out security breaches in Microsoft software.

“You have to understand how they make the software in the first place,” he says.

He hints of broader cyber-blackmail schemes, of hackers breaking into websites, stealing data from a company and then selling the information back.

Of course, that’s not anything he would ever do.

“Crackers destroy,” he says. “Hackers create. When you’re a professional hacker, you are a distinguished type of person. There’s something sacred in the world of hackers.”

For example, hackers don’t talk badly about other hackers, he says. They don’t share secrets outside their brotherhood. They have their own technical language. In chat rooms, they say hello with the sign and goodbye with .

“The way I know a hacker is real is by his words,” he says.

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He speaks of a worldwide fellowship of hackers. “In order to be a member, you have to have achieved something,” he says. “Hackers all over the world send each other information. There are lots of websites. If you don’t give, you don’t get.”

He receives requests for his services, he says, from all over the world. “We focus on business applications,” he says, meaning that he offers to unlock commercial software for tons of money.

It’s not that he’s unwilling to spend money on computer gear. He declines to disclose how much he earns, but says he makes a comfortable living. He personally prefers to use original software with convenient upgrades and real-time support. He can afford to pay, but can’t because sanctions prevent U.S. bank transactions with Syria.

He shows off a $5,000 Sony Vaio laptop, loaded with 4 gigabytes of memory, a 2.5-gigahertz processor, a 17-inch high-definition monitor and a Blu-ray DVD player.

He bought it in the United Arab Emirates and paid cash, he says. The laptop came with original Windows Vista software -- licensed.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi was recently on assignment in Syria.


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