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

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.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
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.

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