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[liberationtech] NYT: For Syria’s Rebel Movement, Skype Is a Useful and Increasingly Dangerous Tool

frank at frank at
Tue Dec 4 13:13:23 PST 2012

This piece from NYT over the weekend should be of interest here, and,
unless I missed it, I don't think it's been yet posted.

Excerpt: "If the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were Twitter
Revolutions, then Syria is becoming the Skype Rebellion. To get around a
near-nationwide Internet shutdown, rebels have armed themselves with
mobile satellite phones and dial-up modems."

Quotes CL and EFF's Eva on risks. Main news here that sticks out for me
is that Syrian activists largely seem aware of the risks, yet many are
still using Skype due to a lack of alternatives.

For Syria’s Rebel Movement, Skype Is a Useful and Increasingly
Dangerous Tool
Published: November 30, 2012

In a demonstration of their growing sophistication and organization,
Syrian rebels responded to a nationwide shutdown of the Internet by
turning to satellite technology to coordinate within the country and to
communicate with outside activists.

When Syria’s Internet service disappeared Thursday, government
officials first blamed rebel attacks. Activist groups blamed the
government and viewed the blackout as a sign that troops would violently
clamp down on rebels.

But having dealt with periodic outages for more than a year, the
opposition had anticipated a full shutdown of Syria’s Internet service
providers. To prepare, they have spent months smuggling communications
equipment like mobile handsets and portable satellite phones into the

“We’re very well equipped here,” said Albaraa Abdul Rahman, 27, an
activist in Saqba, a poor suburb 20 minutes outside Damascus. He said he
was in touch with an expert in Homs who helped connect his office and 10
others like it in and around Damascus.

Using the connection, the activists in Saqba talked to rebel fighters on
Skype and relayed to overseas activists details about clashes with
government forces. A video showed the rebels’ bare-bones room, four
battery backups that could power a laptop for eight hours and a
generator set up on a balcony.

For months, rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad have
used Skype, a peer-to-peer Internet communication system, to organize
and talk to outside news organizations and activists. A few days ago,
Jad al-Yamani, an activist in Homs, sent a message to rebel fighters
that tanks were moving toward a government checkpoint.

He notified the other fighters so that they could go observe the
checkpoint. “Through Skype you know how the army moves or can stop
it,” Mr. Yamani said.

On Friday, Dawoud Sleiman, 39, a member of the antigovernment Ahrar
al-Shamal Battalion, part of the Free Syrian Army, reached out to other
members of the rebel group. They were set up at the government’s Wadi
Aldaif military base in Idlib, a province near the Turkish border that
has seen heavy fighting, and connected to Skype via satellite Internet

Mr. Sleiman, who is based in Turkey, said the Free Syrian Army stopped
using cellphone networks and land lines months ago and instead relies
almost entirely on Skype. “Brigade members communicate through the
hand-held devices,” he said.

This week rebels posted an announcement via Skype that called for the
arrest of the head of intelligence in Idlib, who is accused of killing
five rebels. “A big financial prize will be offered to anyone who
brings the head of this guy,” the message read. “One of our brothers
abroad has donated the cash.”

If the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were Twitter Revolutions, then
Syria is becoming the Skype Rebellion. To get around a near-nationwide
Internet shutdown, rebels have armed themselves with mobile satellite
phones and dial-up modems.

In many cases, relatives and supporters living outside Syria bought the
equipment and had it smuggled in, mostly through Lebanon and Turkey.

That equipment has allowed the rebels to continue to communicate almost
entirely via Skype with little interruption, despite the blackout.
“How the government used its weapons against the revolution, that is
how activists use Skype,” Mr. Abdul Rahman said.

“We haven’t seen any interruption in the way Skype is being used,”
said David Clinch, an editorial director of Storyful, a group that
verifies social media posts for news organizations, including The New
York Times (Mr. Clinch has served as a consultant for Skype).

Mr. Assad, who once fashioned himself as a reformer and the father of
Syria’s Internet, has largely left the country’s access intact
during the 20-month struggle with rebels. The government appeared to
abandon that strategy on Thursday, when most citizens lost access. Some
Syrians could still get online using service from Turkey. On Friday,
Syrian officials blamed technical problems for the cutoff.

The shutdown is only the latest tactic in the escalating technology war
waged in Arab Spring countries.

But several technology experts warned that the use of the Internet by
rebels in Syria, even those relying on Skype, could leave them
vulnerable to government surveillance.

Introduced in 2003, Skype encrypts each Internet call so that they are
next to impossible to crack. It quickly became the pet technology of
global organizers and opposition members in totalitarian countries. And
while Skype’s encryption secrets remain elusive, in recent months the
Assad government, often with help from Iran, has developed tools to
install malware on computers that allows officials to monitor a user’s

“Skype has gone from in the mid-2000s being the tool most widely used
and promoted by human rights activists to now when people ask me I say,
‘Definitely, don’t use it,’ ” said Ronald J. Deibert, director
of Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto that
monitors human rights and cybersecurity.

Using satellite phone service to connect makes Skype potentially more
dangerous since it makes it easier to track a user’s location, said
Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties
group in San Francisco.

The Syrian government has “gone from passive surveillance to more
active surveillance in which they’re gaining access to dissidents’
and opposition members’ computers,” Ms. Galperin said.

The pro-government Syrian Electronic Army has largely led the response
to early cyberattacks by rebels and overseas sympathizers. At
checkpoints in government-controlled regions, Assad forces examined
laptops for programs that would allow users to bypass government
spyware, several activists said. In cafes where the Internet was
available, government officials checked users’ identification.

Rebels are starting to suspect that the government’s efforts are
paying off. A media activist in Idlib named Mohamed said a rebel
informant working for the government was killed in Damascus six months
ago after sending warnings to the Free Syrian Army on Skype.

“I saw this incident right in front of my eyes,” Mohamed said. “We
put his info on Skype so he was arrested and killed.”

In August, an activist named Baraa al-Boushi was killed during shelling
in Damascus. Activists later circulated a report saying that a Saudi
Arabian claiming to support the revolution was actually a government
informant who determined Mr. Boushi’s location after a long
conversation on Skype.

A Skype spokesman, Chaim Haas, said calls via the service between
computers, smartphones and other mobile devices are automatically
encrypted. But just like e-mail and instant messaging can be compromised
by spyware and Trojan horses, so can Skype.

“They’re listening to the conversation before it gets encrypted,”
Mr. Haas said. “That has nothing to do with Skype at all.”

Liam Stack contributed reporting from New York; Hala Droubi from Dubai,
United Arab Emirates; and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.
A version of this article appeared in print on December 1, 2012, on page
A12 of the New York edition with the headline: For Syria’s Rebel
Movement, Skype Is a Useful and Increasingly Dangerous Tool.


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