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[liberationtech] Syria's Digital Proxy War | The Atlantic

Michael Rogers michael at
Fri Nov 2 03:39:37 PDT 2012

Hash: SHA1

I'd be interested to hear the views of people on this list as to
whether they see themselves as being involved in a proxy war.


On 01/11/12 20:19, Rachel Fredman wrote:
> Of interest to many on this list:
> Syria's Digital Proxy War
> By Sean Lyngaas
> /Iran and the United States are squaring off in a life-or-death
> battle for information./
> RTR2YJLN-615.jpg A Free Syrian Army fighter speaks on a radio in al
> Qusayr. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
> There is a proxy war going on in Syria, one measured in megabytes
> rather than in arms. On one side, Iran is providing Bashar
> al-Assad's regime with the tools of digital dictatorship to locate
> and bait the Syrian opposition. On the other side, the United
> States is trying to help the opposition protect itself from such
> attacks and set up alternate channels of communication. The outcome
> of this proxy war will affect the lives of many Syrians and the
> credibility of the State Department's efforts to promote digital
> freedom internationally.
> The Syrian regime has long been interested in improving its online 
> repression. Dlshad Othman, a member of the Syrian opposition and
> an Internet expert, says that in recent years the regime has sent
> its bureaucrats abroad for technical training in places like Dubai.
> But Assad's censorship efforts remained clumsy and at times
> ineffectual until the uprising against him began last year. He then
> re-opened social media to the public in order to better monitor and
> crush dissent, and confided in the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence
> and Security for surveillance techniques. We are now seeing Iran's
> sophisticated online crackdown on its own Green Movement in 2009
> being applied by Assad in Syria. Pro-regime hackers pose as
> dissidents 
> <>
in chat rooms to lure and locate the opposition before gunmen are
> dispatched to kill them.
> Contrary to recent reports that the Syrian regime could unplug the 
> country from the web entirely, Assad considers the Internet a vital
> tool to winning the civil war. This is a cyber war, Othman told me.
> It is an opportune time for the United States to show that its
> support of digital freedom can save lives. If communications
> technology is the way in which the United States chooses to
> intervene in the Syrian conflict, why not unleash the full
> capabilities of American technology?
> An argument against arming the rebels is the possibility of
> weapons ending up in jihadist hands. But is communications
> equipment just as dangerous? On the contrary, more coordinated and
> safer communications between commanding officers in the Free Syrian
> Army and the jihadists who have joined their cause may help reel in
> the latter in a post-Assad Syria.
> There are currently two separate U.S. policies that are falling
> short of Washington's goal of safer and more widespread
> communication among the Syrian opposition. The first is American
> sanctions on Syria that make it more difficult for the regime's
> opponents to obtain vital anti-tracking software. With fewer tools
> to evade government surveillance, these Syrian activists are more
> vulnerable to Assad's death squads. The second is the State
> Department's distribution of satellite phones, modems, and other
> gear to the Syrian opposition through a training program based in 
> Istanbul. Reports that this equipment has only on occasion reached
> the front lines bode ill for the rebels and for America's future
> influence in Syria.
> Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made the freedom to
> communicate -- whether online, on the phone, or in the public
> square -- a central goal of U.S. statecraft over the last four
> years. The State Department has ramped up funding for projects
> promoting Internet freedom, with $30 million allocated last year on
> circumventing censorship.
> But for every dollar the United States has spent on Internet
> freedom, countries like Iran and China have spent many times more
> in countermeasures. Iran has spent about $1 billion on an internal
> version of the Internet that analysts say is nearing completion.
> /The Washington Post /reported 
> <>
this week that there is a shortfall in funding for the State Department
> Internet freedom program. With budget cuts looming over many U.S. 
> foreign aid programs because of the fiscal crisis, the funding gap 
> between Tehran and Washington on the subject seems likely to
> widen.
> Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called his
> country's investment in Internet censorship "the soft war" against
> the United States and he sees it as a strategic asset to be
> deployed to protect its regional interests.
> "Nowhere in the region has (censorship) been as severe as in Iran,
> which is what makes their assisting Syria so dangerous," Jillian C.
> York, an expert on Internet censorship at the Electronic Frontier
> Foundation (EFF), told me in an email. The Syrian opposition could
> benefit greatly from technical assistance 
> <>
to circumvent government surveillance. But U.S. sanctions on Syria make
> it illegal for American tech firms to sell this software to the
> Syrian opposition. The few exemptions that exist have not been
> effective in making this software more available to Syrian users.
> As for the estimated $10 million in communications equipment that
> the State Department designated for the "Office of Syrian
> Opposition Support," details are hard to come by. State Department
> officials declined to comment for this article and communications
> experts interviewed said the aid is shrouded in secrecy. "It's been
> totally non-transparent," said EFF's Jillian York. "While I
> understand the need for some secrecy, the State Department should
> make this information available to certain groups, as we have no
> idea if they're following important security procedures."
> According to reports from /The Washington Post 
> <>
/and /The Telegraph
> <>/,
the communications aid comes in the form of satellite phones, laptops,
> and other equipment that are distributed from an office in Istanbul
> to heavily vetted Syrians. The State Department says that 900
> satellite phones have been distributed and 1,000 activists have
> been trained to use the equipment.
> But Istanbul's sheer distance from the Syrian border means the
> equipment and training are off-limits to many opposition activists
> and rebels located in Syria. And whether or not the equipment is
> reaching the rebels, the perception that it isn't matters for
> America's credibility in the conflict. The rebels' impressions
> about who was there for them when they were under siege will be
> hard to change. This will leave bitter memories and diminish
> American influence in Syria going forward.
> This article available online at:
> -- Rachel Fredman c: 608-512-5726 Skype: rachel.fredman1
> -- Unsubscribe, change to digest, or change password at:

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