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International hacktivists help Syrian citizens circumvent Internet censorship

As the government cracks down on protesters in Syria, hacker groups from abroad are helping people to get access to the Web and to communicate safely despite surveillance and repression.

Syrian citizen protest

Anti-government protestesters in Syria are being attacked by the authorities

Human rights groups and the international community are calling for an arms embargo and an end to government repression in Syria, which has resulted in almost 2,000 deaths since March.

Like in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year, Syria has responded to the uprising not only with violence, but also by putting its citizens under surveillance and censoring the internet.

What such regimes didn't count on was that international internet activists would step in and fight back.

Since the Arab Spring began, hacktivists have been building ad hoc telecommunications systems all over the Middle East to help citizens get information on what's going on there out of these countries.

When the government shut down the Internet, Telecomix helped Egyptians by getting them access to dial-up modems.

Telecomix logo

Tactics of 'Telecomix' online activists are less controversial than those of the group Anonymous

Rather than describing themselves as a group, members say Telecomix is an idea or a working group where international hackers – or hacktivists – get together to collaborate on particular issues.

Their aims are to provide free and secure communication, anonymity on the net, freedom of speech and news via their Twitter account. And they've stepped up the game by entering the fray in the Middle East.

Under Surveillance

Distributing videos and sharing information about anti-government protests in Syria is incredibly difficult because the government has cracked down on all forms of telecommunications. It's become dangerous to post a picture, video or even make a phone call to try to tell others what's going on. One Syrian protester who asked to remain anonymous said via encrypted email that Iranian experts have been helping the regime spy on people.

"The Syrian government and branches of intelligence are exploiting this crisis to develop their ability to try to control our words and hopes. We know they are using strong programs to do this," said the Syrian protestor.

"In addition, when they arrest an activist, they try to take over his or her accounts and passwords through torture, especially Facebook accounts. So they can catch his friends who support the revolution," said the protestor, whose identity must be protected.

Maha Abu Shama, a Syrian campaigner from Amnesty International, said that Syrian authorities are also using personal statements from social networking sites against people.

"If people write things on their Facebook page or in some correspondences that are critical of the authorities, if they happen to be arrested, these written statements on their Facebook or Internet accounts could be used against them as evidence," said Abu Shama.

Safety Guidelines

To help Syrians keep safe on the internet, international hacktivist group Telecomix is giving them practical advice. Stephan Urbach explains the basic rules.

Two members of Telecomix

Stephan Urbach (left) and Jonatan Walck (right) of Telecomix

"Safety guideline number one is to use, whenever possible, https – SSL encrypted connections. If you want to chat with people, use an instant messenger with OTR – Off The Record – it's a protocol to encrypt your communication," explained Telecomix member Stephan Urbach, who is from Germany.

To secure emails, people can use PGP – Pretty Good Privacy – and Tor to obfuscate their surfing. Urbach said that if people follow these steps, it makes it difficult for anyone to read their messages.

While the Syrian government hasn't shut down the Internet completely, Jonatan Walck, a Swedish hacktivist with Telecomix, said that it varies from city to city. Connections are often unreliable and may go down for hours or days. Human rights groups suspect that these cutoffs are done strategically to coincide with attacks by the security forces.

Despite knowing that the Internet is under surveillance, many people are still using it, often in an insecure way.

"Just as in Egypt, there's a risk of people being tracked. The government is listening," said Walck, adding, "So we listen and see when people come in and contact us, and we try to make sure that they don't get caught for it."

Urbach said with a laugh that essentially around 10 Telecomix members are providing tech support for an entire country.

But it's the seriousness of the situation that motivated him to act.

"I just fear for the people that they are getting harmed. I am sitting in Europe, everything is fine for me. I am not there, fearing for my life. So if we can help the people feeling a little bit more secure and getting a little bit more secure, then it's worth it," said Urbach.

Beyond the border

The Syrian government has imposed a media blackout, so it's very difficult to find out what is actually happening in the country.

But for Telecomix, this is just another challenge to be overcome. Recently they helped distribute an amateur video of a peaceful demonstration where police officers assaulted protestors, and one person was shot and killed.

Telecomix not only helped him get this information out of the country, but protected the Syrian's anonymity. Yet every day, it's getting more and more difficult to get this kind of information out.

"We do figure out one way or another, that they safely can get it outside of the Syrian border, and then we can of course publish it so it's up for everyone," said Walck.

Dr. Asiem El Difraoui, researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that Telecomix and Anonymous are making a huge difference in the Middle East.

Screenshot of hacked website

'Anonymous' hackers brought down the Syrian Defense Ministry's website this August

Both Telecomix and Anonymous try to help people directly, although Anonymous has gained a lot of media attention in recent months for its high-profile attacks against companies like Sony. But they're not just after corporations. Anonymous members also attacked the official websites of the oppressive Tunisian regime.

"They really hacked into governmental websites, brought the presidential websites down and so on," said El Difraoui, and added "Anonymous is not as purely destructive as we think. The French Anonymous members, for instance, helped the Tunisians also to maintain communications in the same way as Telecomix."

But the Syrian government has learned from Egypt, and instead of just shutting down the internet, they're also using social networks for their own agenda.

"They try to create some solidarity movement on Facebook and the other new media, and use YouTube as well, for showing alleged atrocities by the Syrian opposition, which they deem terrorists," said El Difraoui.

For Telecomix, circumventing Syrian censorship and surveillance is a constant game of cat and mouse. But for the Syrian people, their hard work and practical safety tips are really important.

"The Telecomix team helps us, emotionally and physically. They give us advice on how to be safe on the internet, dos and don'ts, and they help us to spread the word," wrote a Syrian protestor via encrypted email. "[Telecomix] are like one family and they are always there for support and assistance. They are people [with] a high degree of humanity and responsibility."

Hacktivists also under surveillance

Due to their activities, Telecomix and Anonymous are also getting attention from the authorities. When the FBI conducted a sweep last month of Anonymous members, Stephan Ubrach from Telecomix received a letter from the Federal Criminal Police Office saying that he was no longer under surveillance.

With the recent riots in London, Urbach warns that surveillance is also increasing in Western democratic countries, where leaders are contemplating Internet and mobile network kill switches.

"What we are doing is showing that if they do it, we evolve and find ways to circumvent these censorship methods and hopefully our politicians in Europe learn from that, that they don't do it here," concluded Urbach.

Author: Cinnamon Nippard / sad
Editor: Anke Rasper

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