Of all the Arab Spring revolutions, Syria’s has been unmatched in its extensive use of modern communication tools. Even though Syrians have little exposure to communication technology and services under Assad, their interest in them doubled after the outbreak of the popular uprising. More and more Syrians started to get interested in programmes like Skype, activists have told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF).
Thuraya satellite phone, a regional satellite phone provider, became very popular among activists due to instances of communication lines cut-off by Syrian army when it conducted incursions and closed down areas where people take to the streets. The networks were cut off for a week in some places and for more than three months in areas like Baba Amr in Homs, parts of Dara, Jisr Shugur and Dir Zur.
“Thuraya is the only option left for activists to keep in touch with the outside world, especially in inland areas. Activists in border regions used cellular mobile phones from neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon to stay in contact with the world. Thuraya phones and other devises were also brought from these countries across the Syrian border. With friends who live in these countries willing to recharge them, Thuraya phones became the most useful tool of communication in spite of their high prices which sometimes can go up to $ 3000 US a piece,” says IT technician Yarub Ali.
The art of camouflage
Explaining storage technics that activists use to avoid the confiscation of these devices, Yarub says “We used to turn off phone mobiles before storing them in plastic bags away from the reach of people. We use them only when necessary. These mobile phones became widely used when activists found out that local mobile providers are controlled by security forces which ordered them to cut off of the service.”
“Thuraya provided a wide range of services for us including voice, sms texts, sending data and fax with a speed of 9600 megabyte per second and voicemail in addition to the services of holding-on and forwarding messages. There is also GPS system which helped us carry out group communication and facilitated coordination among us,” says Abdullah Walid, coordinator with satellite televisions.
“We can use mobiles to call and receive calls when we are in a place covered by Thuraya and we can as well put mobiles on GSM mode in areas covered by companies which have agreements with this system. But this last option involves certain risks as security forces can hack calls by infiltrating the network,” he adds.
Walid elaborates further: “our phones have been tracked down and jammed by the regime but we were able to report on all events that took place in the country. We used different camouflage technics like removing the battery after calling, changing places when calling and using a coded language to communicate between us.”
Activists used live transmission technology via Skype and cellular phones. “Faced with government’s censorship and a slow internet connection, we had to buy more efficient and sophisticated devices like iDirect 300 which speeds up uploading operations to up to 18 and 4.2 megabytes,” says Ala Abderrahman, an activist in Hamah.
The activist in charge of coordination with satellite televisions via Skype and who chose not to reveal his identity says that he has some issues with “the confidentiality of IT programmes and applications, yet experts assert that Skype and VoIP are safe to use and enjoy high degree of confidentiality. Skype in particular protects the privacy of correspondence and keeps secret and sensitive data safe. We meet every day online to report on events and agree on our daily statements and news bulletins.”
“Very often activists are compelled to use “proxy break” software and covert technics and to decode sent and received data to secure their communications,” he adds.
Said Al-Mohamed, activist from rural Duma near Damascus in charge of data and networks, contends that “you need high speed to break proxy programme, which you will never get. This is why we try to secure “space nets” devises to get rid of censorship… it’s too difficult.”
Software expert Basel Jassim believes it is better to use a special space network which allows the decoding of incoming and outgoing data from the activist’s computer. Skype is safe because its data are coded and it can be decoded only by the mother company. Facebook can be made secure via ssl, yet this technique is not certain following leaks which said that Syrian information network can save a copy of the ssl for the intelligence to use to hack activists’ accounts.”