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[liberationtech] Assisting journalists/human rights defenders to have better ICT practice/security was Re: more on sat phone (in)security
brianc at smallworldnews.tv
Tue Feb 28 12:21:41 PST 2012
Hi Katherine, et al, my apologies for the delay in responding!
First and foremost, Marie Colvin was *definitely* using "opposition
see my comment here:
She was leveraging equipment quite likely provided by Avaaz, or else other
individuals/organizations funding and supporting the Syrian opposition.
What we don't know is the degree to which the VSAT and/or BGAN device was
being used primarily by nonviolent citizen journalists or in a manner which
was actively supporting armed oppostion, however I think it would be
somewhat naive to believe that its not the latter at least some of the time.
So what I'm proposing, essentially, is that not only do there need to be
better technical guides, particularly for more casual users like
journalists and even many activists(yes I recognize we also need to teach
people to be less casual, but we have to start somewhere), but we also need
the ability to supply journalists and human rights defenders with better
There are certainly examples that already exist of organizations providing
aid and support to journalists, for example the Committee to Protect
Journalists' http://cpj.org/campaigns/assistance/what-we-do.php Journalist
Reporters Without Borders provides
http://en.rsf.org/helping-journalists.html its own manner of assisting
journalists, mirroring targeted sites, subsidizing safety equipment, etc.
Both provide training manuals (and i believe some level of training?),
however I find these training manuals lacking for a variety of reasons, the
two biggest being:
1. virtually no information provided about communications/technology
2. they, like many manuals in this space, are very text-heavy and light on
images, which makes them difficult to comprehend for beginners, and even
more difficult for non-native speakers, even WITH translation
I'm thinking that there needs to be some dedicated organization that
provides access to ICT equipment as well as know-how. I am sure there are
huge implications for this regarding safety/security/sovereignty, however I
suspect such an organization would be safer to affiliate with than
depending on political organizations such as Avaaz who have chosen, quite
understandably, to take a position opposing dictatorships in Syria and
At the moment, I'd argue particularly due to a bizarre confluence of market
forces and the massive impact of social media, video-sharing, and
broadening of access to the world via ICT, we find ourselves in a very
strange situation. At the same time that news agencies find themselves
increasingly pressured to get the best, most breaking, most dramatic news
from conflict areas such as Syria, the falling cost of access to frontline
"citizen journalists" means that the "apparent cost" of this content is in
free-fall, this free-fall makes it harder and harder to justify the high
cost of satellite bandwidth, insurance, and other costs of doing business
in a warzone. At the same time, the Syrian opposition sees no such impact
from market forces with regard to the cost of getting their message out
because, quite frankly, human lives are worth more, and they are apprently
able to access large reserves of capital and NGO support.
The result is that journalists are increasingly pressured to file stories
more quickly, and in the field, which understandably leads to the loosening
of security practice and encourages them to depend on the "local aactivist
network" or "opposition media centre" to file their content.
We saw this in Libya where the media centre was only accessible to foreign
journalists who were credentialed or Libyan citizens who had someones
brother to vouch for them. (these centres were also largely
male-dominated), This happened in Benghazi, where the area was largely
liberated, as well as Misrata where a local hotel was apparently turned
into a combination command & control centre and media/press centre
(possibly serving other functions as well, i wasn't in Misrata so this is
based on comments from colleagues), and later in Zintan where some half
dozen local propaganda papers all had one editor-in-chief, operated under
the purview of the local council, and was even threatened with "burning to
the ground" when military commanders felt they weren't doing a good enough
job selling the accomplishments of Zintani militias to Al Jazeera and other
I think it's clear that embedding with the US military in Iraq and
Afghanistan was a huge blow to the credibility of a neutral/independent
press, but I'm increasingly concerned that "not embedding" has turned into
a sort of "embedding with the rebels." While I'm sure that many governments
do target journalists, and will continue to do so, I'm also quite sure that
the ignorance of journalists about the realities of how new ICT works,
particularly with regard to Communications, is leading to unnecessary
We have only to look as far as Marie Colvin believing that skype was the
best way to communicate:
"The only way to get communications out was via satellite. Marie had
decided to use a Thuraya satphone as a little as possible because its calls
could easily be intercepted and its location identified. Instead, she was
mainly sending messages via Skype, which is harder to track, on another
Of course, while this may be true from a certain perspective, the decision
to use skype meant relying on a higher bandwidth always-on VSAT connection
which is certainly far easier to locate and target than a satphone which
can be used briefly and from many different locations.
On Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 5:34 PM, Katherine Maher
<katherine.maher at gmail.com>wrote:
> What would your suggestions be for rethinking international law? I'm not a
> legal expert, but it appears journalists are covered under the Geneva
> Conventions as both civilians and soldiers, effectively covering the rights
> to protection as POWs as well as against civilian targeting.
> http://www.npr.org/2012/02/23/147290996/for-war-reporters-the-risks-of-going-solo?sc=tw&cc=shareIn most instances, the governments or non-state actors targeting
> journalists are not respecting international or domestic legal frameworks.
> Is there an indication Colvin was using opposition uplinks, versus her own
> equipment? Using any untrusted equipment or network carries risk, but even
> those bringing in their own equipment are subject to local network
> Genuinely curious, what are you proposing?
> On Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 8:17 PM, Brian Conley <brianc at smallworldnews.tv>wrote:
>> Unfortunately they are often the only option. I think there needs to be a
>> radical rethinking of international law as well as efforts to provide
>> journalists ict support without relying on opposition activists which is
>> inherently dangerous.
>> On Feb 23, 2012 5:09 PM, "Katrin Verclas" <katrin at mobileactive.org>
>>> Yep, all true. Extremely imperfect risk mitigation strategies. We
>>> should probably just leave it at - DON'T use them in insecure environments.
>>> Looking forward to your piece.
>>> On Feb 23, 2012, at 8:05 PM, Brian Conley wrote:
>>> > Thanks Katrin,
>>> > I will be writing my own piece about this issue soon, I hope tomorrow!
>>> > I would like to take issue with two comments from the safer mobile
>>> submission, based on my own experience with the technology in the field. I
>>> would add a comment but am on my phone so will try to remember to submit
>>> late today.
>>> > Now the issues:
>>> > Initial comments only, anonymous says you should "move" which is a
>>> nice idea, but without higher end equipment this is notreally an option,
>>> particularly on older model phones and certainly not for bgan terminals.
>>> Unless you are in a desert in north Africa sitting on the side of the car
>>> That faces south in a rural area, you at not getting a reliable connection.
>>> > Anonymous also suggests using the phone in a built up area, which
>>> hours directly against previous comment, it is REALLY difficult to maintain
>>> a reliable connection in a city unless you are on a roof our a balcony
>>> facing the proper direction, or a harbor or other area with a large open
>>> space away from the buildings. Remember satellite phones are not
>>> > Just some things to consider.
>>> > Brian
>>> > On Feb 23, 2012 4:36 PM, "Katrin Verclas" <katrin at mobileactive.org>
>>> > There is some indication that the two journalists killed in Syria were
>>> located by their sat phones. While details are elusive and unknown, here
>>> are some posts on why and how it's easy to track a sat phone. As @ioerror
>>> has repeatedly stated, be afraid. Be very afraid of sat phones in insecure
>>> > This from EFF:
>>> https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/02/satphones-syria-and-surveillance - a good overview
>>> > This from SaferMobile (disclosure: I run the site/edit content) by
>>> Anonymous, a contributor to the site who works in the telco industry:
>>> https://safermobile.org/be-afraid-be-very-afraid-of-satellite-phones-in-insecure-locations/ - detail on how location tracking is possible, easy, and cheap
>>> > This from David Burgess, fabulous guy and core developer on OpenBTS:
>>> http://openbts.blogspot.com/2012/02/some-comments-on-satellite-phones.html- more detail on the technical logistics, nicely complements SaferMobile's
>>> > Katrin
>>> > Katrin Verclas
>>> > MobileActive.org
>>> > katrin at mobileactive.org
>>> > skype/twitter: katrinskaya
>>> > (347) 281-7191
>>> > Check out the new Mobile Media Toolkit at
>>> > http://mobilemediatoolkit.org. To "Making Media Mobile!"
>>> > A global network of people using mobile technology for social impact
>>> > http://mobileactive.org
>>> > _______________________________________________
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>>> Katrin Verclas
>>> katrin at mobileactive.org
>>> skype/twitter: katrinskaya
>>> (347) 281-7191
>>> Check out the new Mobile Media Toolkit at
>>> http://mobilemediatoolkit.org. To "Making Media Mobile!"
>>> A global network of people using mobile technology for social impact
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> Katherine R. Maher
> katherine.maher at gmail.com
Director, Small World News
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