Censorship, surveillance, and Android phones: Syria's tech revolution, from the cutting room floor

Censorship, surveillance, and Android phones: Syria's tech revolution, from the cutting room floor

Summary: The Syrian civil war is not just being fought with mortars and street-level gun battles. ZDNet and CBS News talked to the people on the ground to explore how technology is being utilized to battle the oppressive Bashar al Assad regime's censorship and surveillance capabilities.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech
A Syrian man looks at his mobile phone in a neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria. (Image: Associated Press)

Random disconnections, mass censorship, and widespread online surveillance that could see activists' doors kicked down at any time by forces loyal to the country's oppressive leader.

It's just another day in the life of the Syrian Internet. 

Little is known (and even less has been reported in mainstream media) about the state of Internet access in the troubled, war-torn state, or how technology is used to fight the despotic President Bashar al Assad.

Declared a civil war by the United Nations almost exactly two years ago in December 2011, the vast majority of those living, working, and fighting on the ground call it something else — a "revolution" — much in the way that those in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt declared during their own uprisings in the so-called Arab Spring.

The fighting in Syria has not subsided. It has intensified, and has no end in sight. And make no mistake; the opposition forces are not winning the war. They are however far ahead in the war of words on the Western front by way of old-fashioned propaganda, thanks to a technological embrace.

But it's not fooling everyone.

Though the U.N. has previously said there is mounting evidence to show Assad and senior officials have been involved in war crimes, the global body has also voiced concerns over the opposition's actions during the course of the conflict.

This once developed and burgeoning economy has in the last two years been ravished by fighting, where almost every city block can be a micro-battlefield. But culturally and societally it is not so far removed from the Western world. The Syrian people have kept — perhaps surprisingly — as up to date with modern technological advances as they can be, in spite of foreign embargoes and severed trade routes.

In speaking to ordinary civilians, media activists, opposition members, and the occasional ground fighter over the course of the last four months, it became clear the war was fought not just with weapons and words, but also over the Web. 

Some of their experiences, the tactics they use to keep in touch with friends and family, and also their efforts to subvert and undermine the "authority" of the oppressive regime did not make the cut to the final three-part series published on CBS News.

Here we explore a little more about the tools of their trade.

On Android phones and launching mortars

In a small urban district of Damascus, Syrian opposition forces are using smartphones and tablets in an entirely new way by launching mortars and missiles against forces loyal to Assad.

From CBS News


To fight Assad, Syrian opposition logs on at any cost

Internet access has been both a weapon and a casualty of the civil war in Syria.

Armed with their home-built and improvised weaponry, a Reuters report from September outed one example of rebel fighters using an iPad’s compass to aim a mortar on one of the Damascus battlefronts. In other videos uploaded to YouTube, members of the most well-known opposition faction, the Free Syrian Army can be seen using an iPad against the rudimentary mortar tubes to try and gauge the angle of fire and accurately guide the shells.

When news of this broke, it drew widespread coverage from traditional outlets and tech media alike, with some likening Syrian fighters not so dissimilarly to Westerners in their tech-savviness. In many cases the opposition is utilizing technology in a completely ulterior way than which they were first intended.

Bayan, which is not his real name — speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal by the Syrian government — said iPads are expensive and difficult to smuggle into the country as a result of U.S. embargoes on imports. Although, fighters often use smartphones and tablets to aid their combat efforts. 

Many Syrians switched from basic Symbian-based devices, such as Nokia handsets, to more modern Android smartphones during the war.

"We tried iPhones," Bayan said, but he described them as "not practical." Android devices are cheaper to buy than iPhones, he said, adding that iPhones do not always work with their tools to circumvent state surveillance.

On Google Earth and Western services

Mortars may be the opposition's favorite weapon, but they are far from accurate.

From CBS News


Syria's rebels fight with weapons and words

Modern technology helps spread old-fashioned propaganda.

While they may take moderate skill to launch, aiming the rockets and hitting their intended targets while avoiding civilian areas takes great skill.

One person I spoke to who identified himself as a ground fighter did not give his name but said he was near a northern Syrian city where some of the skirmishes have been most intense in recent months. We did not speak for long and the phone connection was patchy, though he spoke good English. He explained that many modern smartphones can be loaded with terrain-mapping apps, such as Google Earth.

From an aerial perspective, it gives fighters means of avoiding roadblocks, and covertly and strategically moving troops which can then be downloaded to mobile phones. Also, combined with the compasses in their smartphones, they can work out with greater accuracy the position and trajectory of the mortar tube in order to increase their chances of hitting their intended target.

This, he said, limits the chances of a rogue missile landing away from their targets, but with their often home-made mortars and rudimentary weaponry it often still relies on a hearty-dose of luck. 

On bypassing state surveillance

In writing this series, it became increasingly apparent how Syrians take technologies and repurpose them for their own means. Silicon Valley giants could never have considered their mapping efforts, video-sharing sites, and social networks would be ever used in the midst of civil war. 

From CBS News


Surveillance and censorship: Inside Syria's Internet

Free speech and Internet access cannot be taken for granted in a war zone.

A technology used to "tunnel" through the Web by enterprises in order to access internal company tools is re-purposed by Syrians to skirt state censorship and surveillance.

Virtual private networking (VPN) and online proxies are heavily utilized by activists and opposition members to appear geographically somewhere else to avoid being monitored and to access sites that are blocked by the government "information" organization, which implements such censorship efforts.

Syria's Information Organization (SIO), the government department responsible for speech and information restriction, spent vast resources and efforts in controlling the country's Internet to restrict access to Western services.

But in spite of its vast control over what is allowed and disallowed from the Syrian Internet, such efforts were in many cases futile.

Yousef, a telecoms industry worker who has detailed and intimate knowledge of the state of the country's Internet infrastructure, told me that before the "crisis" began in 2011, many used unblocking tools to gain access to Facebook and YouTube, which were seen as a direct route to the sympathetic Western world.

Despite the Internet outages and semi-random disconnections, just one-quarter of the country's population — mostly in urban areas and established cities — have access to the Web. Many with Internet access at home still visited Internet cafés before the conflict began because they believed, he explained, that the government was able to monitor home Internet connections.

Following the uprising in 2011, the Internet was opened up far greater than ever in efforts in a shift from censorship and information control to monitoring and surveillance. 

Many cafés subsequently closed, leaving the population that did not have access physically disconnected. It was a tale of two fronts: the shops and bars were unable to obtain approval and prior vetting from the government and the country's internal security services, but those with home Internet access had no need to venture out onto the often dangerous streets. 

As many stayed at home to access Facebook and YouTube, some sites — such as Western news outlets with opposition sympathies — would appear offline. Yousef said it was "very common" for ordinary users to bypass blocks and filters using censorship-skirting tools, such as VPN and proxies to gain access to the sites.

Topic: Emerging Tech

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  • Let me know how it turns out

    al-Qaeda v. a Russian-Iranian puppet. I'm not wanting to take sides on this.
  • Interesting how article on censorship gets comments censored

    Why comments got erased?
    • As I am not the moderator for Zack's blogs,

      I can't say for sure...BUT, my guess is your original comment was posted as a "Reply" to another's comment that was deemed to be inappropriate. When that comment was removed, the entire thread was removed. That's the way the forums work here.
      ZDNet Moderator
      • The root comment that got deleted is reposted below verbatim (see "Few ...

        ... corrections"). There is no name calling, cursing, spam links or anything. There is nothing inappropriate. Who deleted it? This ridiculous censorship should stop.
        • I've checked what I can,

          and it looks like your original comment was posted as a Reply to another that contained rather colorful language. It was not your post per se, but since it was a "child" post to the questionable one, it was caught in the crossfire. Always remember to make your comments as original comments, not as some sort of supporting statement, unless you accept that if that other comment that may contain unacceptable language or content and is therefore removed, your post will be removed as a consequence. The forum software here does not have the programming to move a child comment up the "tree" so to speak. Just as in removing a directory in a file system removes the sub-directories beneath it.
          ZDNet Moderator
          • I thought that I had both root and reply comments, all of which are gone

            This "Few corrections" comment had to be root comment, and some others were replies. But maybe I remember it wrong. Thanks for explanation anyway.
          • You're welcome!

            Hey, I've done the same thing, posted as a "Reply" when I actually wanted to post directly to the article. Not to mention spelling errors...I've been asking for an "edit" button for quite some time, but no time frame as to when it will be implemented. I have to watch, because I have a tendency to switch letters in the middle of words and numbers, can be a tad aggravating. When I was about 9 years old I switched the middle numbers of my grandparents phone number, a lady answered I said "Hi Grandma!", she answered and we had a conversation for some 10 minutes or so until we finally realized I had called someone elses' Grandma...at least she was OK with it and we kind of had a little chuckle, she even thanked me for calling. That could have been a disaster though! I catch myself all the time swapping letters and numbers, especially in the middle of a string...passphrases trip me up too!
            ZDNet Moderator
          • RE: I've checked what I can,

            I was the other poster, having a conversation with DDERSSS. There was no colorful language. DDERSSS and I were having a civil conversation.
  • Few corrections

    1. UN official never concluded that Assad is guilty of war crimes. Certain statements turned out to be unofficial position of US/UK members of UN mission. Real UN reports never showed evidence of Assad's guilt. (Of course, this does not necessary mean that Assad is not guilty; it just means that, for now, there is no evidence of that.)

    2. German, Turkish, Russian and USA's own secret intelligence services have evidence of chemical weapons being used and produced by fundamentalist head-chopping, heart-eating terrorists (aka "rebels"). USA's data on this was completely secret and excluded from State Secretary/Pentagon reports on the issue to manipulate public into war with Syria. Famous investigative journalist Seymour Hersh disclosed the story.

    3. This coverage is one-sided, hence has propagandistic tone. It would be fair journalism if members of Syrian Electronic Army and their fight against manipulations of pro-war US and UK establishment media would be also covered.
    • Few points

      I have no control over comments. But I'll hazard a guess, you were in-fighting and trolling (as usual). Other than that, I don't respond to persistent trolls.
      • Re:

        No in-fighting; and I never call names or anything. The post you replied to is exactly the same as which was deleted (I just reposted it): id est pointless censorship took place.

        1. I look it up: no UNO report cites any evidence on which party is culprit of chemical attacks, despite the claims (I agree the claims were publicized, but no evidence yet).

        2. "Seymour Hersh disclosed the story" does not prompt you with anything?

        2.1. "Seymour Hersh: Obama Lied on Syrian Sarin Attack to Justify U.S. Strike": http://sabbah.biz/mt/archives/2013/12/14/seymour-hersh-obama-lied-syrian-sarin-attack-justify-u-s-strike/

        2.2. "Assad did not order Syria chemical weapons attack, says German press": http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/08/syria-chemical-weapons-not-assad-bild

        2.3. "Turkey finds sarin gas in homes of suspected Syrian Islamists – reports": http://rt.com/news/sarin-gas-turkey-al-nusra-021/ (Notice the date -- months before huge chemical attack)

        2.4. "Russia: Syrian rebels made, used sarin nerve gas" http://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-syrian-rebels-made-used-sarin-nerve-gas/ (Notice the fragment: "The samples taken from the impact site of the gas-laden projectile were analyzed at a Russian laboratory certified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Churkin said. The ambassador said the results of the analysis indicate the Bashar 3 rocket "was not industrially manufactured and was filled with sarin." He said the samples indicated the sarin and the projectile were produced in "cottage industry" conditions. The absence of chemical stabilizers, which are needed for long-term storage and later use, indicated its "possibly recent production," Churkin said.")

        Too bad your research did not include keeping up with events on Syria-related disclosures. You can not be professional half-way. It is too bad that you can not stand constructive criticism and always tries to ignore it as "trolling".
        • By the way

          You may have not notice it, but I actually complemented a lot of your articles where was nothing to critique, and the work was great (especially on privacy/civil liberties issues). So how in the world I am "troll"?
        • Re:

          DDERSSS, I was the one discussing this topic with you last week. And while I disagree with you on Syria, I completely agree that you and I were not name calling or anything unreasonable. I didn't realize that ZDNet was so heavy handed in the censorship department. As you also pointed out, very ironic.
  • Spend Vast Resources to Curb Own Shadow

    Syria doesn't seem to be technologically sophisticated enough to carry out advanced online surveillance, and it's rather being managed by another country that is more experienced in wasting big financial and human resources on cracking down its own dissidents (or futilely fight as Jung said, its own shadow).

    What intrigues me is the question what changes for the better would have occurred in such countries if these governments had spent such national resources on purposes for the good of their own nations instead of only saving the ruling body! Such governments have been making huge amounts of money from exporting oil and are still blaming the international sanctions for any lacking.