Cat and mouse: Syrian activists play a dangerous game on the Web

By: Lauren Wolfe

A chat pops up. Lines start pouring in to tell me that a group of men led two young girls into a van. There is little detail after that, the chat reveals, but not before I need to ask questions I am trying not to ask. I try not to use words that may set off alarm bells for anyone watching over our shoulders, but gathering more information about what happened to these young girls is difficult without asking clearly. Yet I can’t ask clearly. The person I am speaking to is in Syria and the subject we are discussing is rape.

Protesters in Turkey demonstrate what they said was the detention of two Turkish journalists in Syria in March

It doesn’t get much more dangerous than that online right now.

While WMC’s Women Under Siege’s crowdmap of sexualized violence in Syria exists as a means for people to report cases themselves, much of what we do involves ferreting out stories ourselves to post to the map. We spend a good amount of time every week talking to people inside Syria for this purpose. It’s a gamble journalists and human rights workers are taking—using the Internet to communicate into and out of an active warzone like Syria—as we learn more about what the government is doing to watch and listen to our conversations. But it’s a gamble many seem willing to take.

“Citizen journalists and activists in Syria continue to operate despite limited connectivity and intensive state digital surveillance,” said Frank Smyth, the senior advisor for journalist security at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “People are still actively sharing information with each other and the outside the world, despite having seen an unknown number of people detained, tortured, and, in many cases, unaccounted for or disappeared by security forces.”

It’s true—we’ve had multiple conversations with activists in Syria right now who say they understand the risks but choose to speak with us anyway. They care deeply about their country and their fellow citizens, and getting the word out about human rights abuses like rape is what’s important, not necessarily their own safety.

“They talk to us, the media, the monitors, and others because getting the information out is, to them, important enough to risk detention, torture, in some cases, to risk death,” said a staff member of an international human rights organization. (I’m not naming her or the organization in order to protect the security of both.)

Syrian activists are doing what they can to shield themselves for the most part as the regime homes in on them, although sometimes I’m frustrated that they use insecure chat programs like Facebook or use words like “rape” when we should be avoiding them. One of my contacts asked her fellow activists what kinds of precautions they’re taking. Each gave her permission for me to use their first names and ages. I changed their names anyway.

“Since the regime ended the ban on Facebook and I use a proxy server, I don’t trust them [government officials],” said Ahmad, 27, an activist from Damascus. The Facebook ban was lifted after five years in August 2011. “I have a lot of friends and important files. Proxies make the work more difficult and slower but the Internet more secure. I always stay informed about everything related to the protection of online activists.”

It’s the old cat-and-mouse game in which activists and those who wish to spy on them try to stay ahead of each other. The game moves fast. Skype, widely thought to be hard to monitor, is no longer safe. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab recently reported that spyware is being embedded into a .pif video file styled as an “important new video” and circulated by Syrian activists on Skype. Called “BlackShades,” the spyware has activists in Syria upset for good reason. As Smyth said, they face arrest and torture for their work online.

“I live in a house that’s visited by many activists,” said an activist from Homs, Abdulhameed, 26. “At least 10 of us scan their computers. Every time, we are serious in telling them all about the dangers of such Trojan horses.”

One of my contacts, Yasmeen, 25, told me she’s concerned right now because a couple of her friends are currently being detained and they have information about her work documenting human rights abuses that could harm her if gleaned by the authorities. She’s been detained before and what happened then gave her reason to worry.

“When I was arrested, the first question was whether I have an account on Facebook or Skype. I denied it—but they got out a package of paper printed with my accounts that follow me in every post, comment, and friend I have,” Yasmeen said.

Samer, 25, an activist from the suburbs of Damascus said that he was “surprised they had a record of my conversations, my page on Facebook, even my conversation with my love, that it was part of the investigation as well, although I am careful about what I did on the Internet. I was lucky because they didn’t have a lot of information. They held me for just a few days for my online conversations. When I was released, I found that Trojan [BlackShades] on my computer.”

The staffer from that human rights organization reiterated what I believe too: “There is little we can do to protect these people, and they know it,” she said. “The risks are real and they are significant.”

This woman went on to say that we can try to make the communication as secure as possible—use encrypted emails and chat services, etc. We also must condemn the sale of technology to Syria that is used to spy on activists, she said. In April, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that blocks the entry to the U.S. of people and entities in Syria using such technology “that facilitates computer or network disruption, monitoring or tracking that could assist in or enable human rights abuses by or on behalf of the Government of Syria… .”

Yasmeen told me that things are in such a desolate state of chaos that some activists she knows don’t care about protecting themselves on the Internet anymore. They’ve told her that “they have broken the barrier of fear” and they don’t use anything anymore to hide their identity because they have gone physically into hiding as of months ago.

Source: Women Under Siege

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