Saturday, December 01, 2012

Syria Gone Dark

Twitter Revolutions, Skype Rebellions, and Syria's continuing cyber struggle. 
Aleppo, Syria
Photo Credit:

For the past few days, Syria has been blanketed by a network blackout. But the BBC, and all other major news networks, reported the restoration of Internet services in Damascus this morning.

Though the capital seems to be back online, the connectivity of the rest of the country is still up in the air. And though Damascus seems to have been plugged back in, the violence has only intensified. 

With Syria's two day long "radio silence," it became very difficult for people in Damascus, and around the country, to establish just what was happening across the nation at large. The Internet blackout coincided with, and perhaps helped cause, the shut down of the airport. The BBC described it pretty eloquently this morning:
"The only information people had been getting was the sight of clouds of smoke and the non-stop sound of fighter jets, military helicopters and explosions, indicating how heavy the fighting continues to be in the south-eastern area of the city leading to the airport..."
Syria's most recent struggles are, for me at least, stark examples on just how dependent on the networks that we, as a world, have become.

The perpetrators of the communications black-out are, predictably, contested.   The US State Department (and much of the rest of the world, including the rebels) maintains that the Syrian government instigated the problems as "a sign of its desperation," or at least an attempt to flex its muscles. The Syrian government, naturally, blames the rebels.  In recent years, especially in light of the Arab Spring--where social networking played a fundamental role in organization of protesters, technology, networks, and the Internet have become a vital component of any sort of popular movement. Denying organizers and protesters free access to the web could seriously cripple the efforts.

The Syrian rebels, however, are proving to be pretty plucky. According to a really interesting article in the New York Times, the rebels  "responded to a nationwide shutdown of the Internet by turning to satellite technology to coordinate within the country and to communicate with outside activists," namely via Skype.  It wasn't as if opposition leaders were caught completely unaware, as Internet coverage in Syria suffers periodic outages. According to the Times article, they have spent veritable months preparing for such a blackout by smuggling communications devices such as satellite phones and mobile handsets into the country. 

So, back to Skype. The rebels have been using it for months to communicate with outside news organizations like the Times. They use it amongst themselves as well, primarily to organize resistance. During the nationwide Internet blackout,tech-savvy Syrian rebels have maintained access to Skype via satellite Internet service.  According to some sources, the Free Syrian Army switched to satellite service months ago, abandoning methods of connection like cell phone networks and land lines due to their obvious vulnerability. Now they rely on Skype, using those mobile satellite phones and archaic dial-up modems to get around the government imposed Internet black-out--which has not seemed to adversely impact their Skype usage in the slightest. 

The Times makes the obvious connection to the "Twitter Revolutions" in Tunisia and Egypt, labeling Syria as a "Skype Rebellion," which is just whimsical enough to amuse me. It does, however, seem to be a fairly accurate title. 

All in all, I believe that the integration of such technology into popular resistance is beyond interesting--but I can't help but wonder what new types of vulnerabilities could such a solid reliance on Skype and other technologies could present. Many news sources seem to indicate the threat of greater government surveillance  Though Skype is diligent in encrypting its Internet calls, recently the Assad government (with the help of Iran) has been developing means to "install malware on computers that allows officials to monitor a user's activity."

Not a problem, you think, especially given that the rebels are using mobile satellite phones? Well, that poses an even bigger risk--since sat phones make it easier to track a user's location. 

And now Assad's government has powerful incentive to become much more active in their surveillance efforts. The pro-government Syrian Electronic Army works rather tirelessly to suppress the cyber side of the resistance; they handle cyberattacks from rebels and overseas sympathizers alike. There are identification checks at cybercafes and laptops are examined for suspect programs, programs that might allow users to bypass government spyware. Unfortunately, it seems that Assad's government might be gaining ground. Rebels and sympathizers who sent warnings and had conversations via Skype are being arrested and sometimes killed. Evidence suggests that Assad forces may be listening to Skype conversations before they're being encrypted. After all, Skype is not an impregnable fortress. It is vulnerable to Trojan horses, like email, instant messaging, and the city of Troy itself. 

What should the rebels do? Skype has proven to be devastatingly useful and effective in maintaining efficient communication and organization to facilitate their rebellion. Its increasing vulnerability, however, is very troubling. At the same time. what could they possible replace it with that is just as effective and less vulnerable?

We're a little beyond this.
Photo Credit:

Furthermore, what steps could the rebels take to insure the secrecy of their communications via Skype? Do they have the capacity to do anything of that sort? I would hazard to say no. Brilliant and intrepid as the rebels may be, they are communicating with one another via handheld devices and dodgy satellite connection. They do not have access to the resources that Assad's forces do (not the least of which is Iran itself). How can a rebel force hope to fight using sophisticated cyber means when their opponent is stacked with such a distinct advantage?

Another thought, and this may be completely left field...but what responsibility, if any, does Skype have in this conflict? What responsibility did Twitter have in Tunisia and Egypt?

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