Right now Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world for human rights activists and journalists. How a Syrian programmer living in Berlin tries to help them with tutoring on encryption and digital safety.
The day a broken mobile screen saved his life, the Syrian journalist Jamal was on his way from Aleppo to the South of Turkey. It didn't come as a surprise that he got asked to show his smartphone at one of the ISIS checkpoints. When he pulled it out of his pocket he knew what could happen: If the guy checked it, he would find his Facebook page opened - with all his likes of opposition pages, with all his political views and above all, his occupation - working for Reuters, an international media organization - a job ISIS wouldn't appreciate at all.
All that incriminating evidence could lead to an arrest. Or even worse. Fortunately, a friend had given him his broken phone just before Jamal left Aleppo to get it repaired in Turkey. By coincidence, he pulled it out instead of his own and as the guy from ISIS couldn't see anything on the shattered screen, Jamal was allowed to pass the checkpoint.
Digital safety - an underestimated danger
It's not only air strikes and bombings that present big dangers for journalists and activists working in Syria at the moment. Digital attacks play a huge role, too, says Hadi Al Khatib. The Syrian programmer and human rights defender left his home country more than three years ago, and is now living in Berlin. Once a month, he spends one week in the south of Turkey, training media professionals and activists who risk their lives because they want to tell the world what is happening in the war-torn country.
Al Khatib holds workshops for human rights organizations. He always teams up with two other trainers to inform their participants about the psychosocial and physical dangers that await them. "Activists and journalists when operating in risky or hostile environment don't perceive risks as we normally do," says Al Khatib. "Even if a digital attack for example can directly lead to a physical attack."
For example, the difficult situation Jamal faces constantly psychologically affects his ability to take decisions that could protect him while he is on his way, explains Al Khatib. The journalist has been living in conflict-ridden Aleppo for a long time. "For him, an air strike presents a bigger danger than taking his mobile phone with all the information that could cost his life," says the programmer.
That's why Al Khatib and the two other trainers always base their workshops on the principle called holistic security, a form of security which operates on multiple levels at once and integrates them together. In this case the psychosocial, the physical and the digital level. The psychosocial aspect of the training - for example how the participants can cope with the fact that they or their loved ones are always in danger - helps to better raise awareness of the digital risks. "That's at least what we witnessed in Syria," explains Al Khatib.
Anonymity is paramount
Most journalists and activists communicate through social media. Still, Al Khatib recommends they use the Tor browser that allows them to surf the internet anonymously and not to share locations. "People are interested in the facts and not so much in the person who is reporting," he says. "Otherwise, you might bring you and the people in the area around you into danger."
During the workshops, Al Khatib and his colleagues try to raise the participants' awareness and build their capacities. The idea is that journalists and human rights defenders need to know how the internet and how mobile technology work. And that it is always better to plan ahead before going on a mission in order to assess the risks that await them on the ground. They also have to understand who their allies are - and even more important - their foes.
"Usually what we see from the work of activists and journalists is that they are taking a huge risk and they are not so much thinking about the consequence," accordign to Al Khatib. "We want to build a culture of understanding so they can continue doing what they are doing."
"Our goal is not to raise the level of paranoia," says Al Khatib. During the workshops, he and his colleagues work in collaboration with the participating journalists and human rights defenders. As they are already operating in a hugely risky situation, they should at least feel that they are in a safe space at the workshop so they share their experiences, explains the Syrian programmer. And hopefully keep on reporting about the country's fate without getting harmed.