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[liberationtech] NYT: For Syria’s Rebel Movement, Skype Is a Useful and Increasingly Dangerous Tool
eva at eff.org
Tue Dec 4 15:24:15 PST 2012
"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
In my conversations with Syrian activists, this is not the impression I
have gotten from them at all. The Syrian activists I have spoken to
often believe that Skype is "secure," and they are not aware that there
are companies such as Bitek and Bluecoat that sell products to
governments that can track the meta-data about their Skype
calls--including who they're calling and for how long.
Google Hangouts reportedly works in Syria and I would consider
suggesting it to Syrians as an alternative to Skype, but most Syrians
are not looking for alternatives because they are not aware that there
may be a significant security risk.
Andrew is right to point out that this is separate from the problem of
out malware/out-of-band recording.
International Freedom of Expression Coordinator
Electronic Frontier Foundation
eva at eff.org
(415) 436-9333 ex. 111
On 12/4/12 1:13 PM, frank at journalistsecurity.net wrote:
> 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
> By AMY CHOZICK
> 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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