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Displaced Syrians battle for online lifeline

Skype and other communication tools are crucial for Syrian refugees to keep in touch with family inside the country.

Last updated: 16 Mar 2014 07:46
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Beirut, Lebanon - Yousef sat on the navy couch with his arms wrapped tightly around his legs, and rocked back and forth.

It's a position he has become all too familiar with over the past year. He turned on his laptop and waited fitfully for Skype to load.

"Without Skype I wouldn't be able to be in touch with my family in Aleppo," he said in his living room in Beirut. "Sometimes it doesn't work - you don't want to know what goes through my head. I have lost many friends in this war." Yousef, who requested that only his first name be used because his family is still in Syria, fled Aleppo more than a year ago, leaving behind his family.

The city has been the target of a sharp increase in the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian government in recent weeks. These attacks have claimed hundreds of lives and have resulted in a mass exodus of civilians to the Turkish border.

When the war in Syria broke out three years ago, there were almost 4.5 million Internet users, which represented about 20 percent of the country's pre-war population.

The Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) and the Syrian Computer Society (SCS) control the country's Internet. The STE, more commonly known as Syrian Telecom, is controlled by President Bashar al-Assad.

But since the crisis began, citizens and government officials have been battling for control of the country's Internet. Using a myriad of tactics, such as cyber attacks, digital surveillance and even shutting down the Internet, the government and its supporters have attempted to tighten control of information online. Such manoeuvres highlight the perils of communication in the war-torn nation.

Communication control

A recently published study of stolen Syrian Internet logs provides an insight into the techniques the Syrian government uses to censor the web.

The study, published in the journal arXiv, and completed by computer scientists from the University College London and Australia's Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence, analysed censorship logs leaked by hackers in 2011.

The study found that, surprisingly, unlike countries such as China and Iran, the country censors few sites. It found, however, that censorship endeavours were focused on instant messaging and video sharing. Skype was the most censored domain in Syria during the nine-day period examined by researchers.

"Internet censorship in Syria is indeed less invasive and quite targeted," one of the study's authors, Emiliano De Cristofaro, from the University College London, told Al Jazeera.

"In fact, while aggressively censoring instant messaging, the censorship selectively targets a few Facebook pages and geopolitically significant content. This, however, does not necessarily mean minor information control or less ubiquitous surveillance, but rather shows that censorship aims at a more subtle control of the Internet, probably achieving a vast capability of surveillance and less evident (and prone to backslash) active censorship."

Thus, by enabling Internet users to use social media sites like Facebook, the government has been able to collect usernames and passwords to gain access to people's accounts.

"Syrian Facebook users should be very wary," said Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

"While Facebook itself has stepped up security to make it more difficult for governments to spy on users, Syrian authorities continue to intimidate users into handing over their passwords during interrogation, and there have been reports of 'honeypots' - Syrian spies posing as young women, for example, and befriending Syrians in order to get personal information about them."

Harsh penalties

According to a new report by Reporters Without Borders, titled Enemies of the Internet 2014: entities at the heart of censorship and surveillance, it is not just the Syrian government that is the agent of repression in the country.

"Jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also monitor news and information online," the report said. "These organisations do not have the resources of the Syrian government but are still able to monitor social networking sites and infiltrate Facebook groups."

The report also highlighted that Internet surveillance provided a platform for the Syrian government to arrest countless activists and media workers working to disseminate information.

"Dozens of Syrians involved in the news industry have been arrested and tortured after giving interviews to foreign news organisations about the repression in their country," it said. "The experiences of those who have been released are enlightening: The intelligence agents who questioned them knew all about their activities and their contacts. Countless people have been arrested for 'liking' a page supporting the uprising or for posting videos of demonstrations."

York said, however, that most "at-risk" Syrian Internet users appeared to have wisened to the government's tactics and were taking precautions online.

"Rather, my concerns are now focused more on the traditional tactics such as torturing users for their passwords," she added.

Internet benefits

While experts warned Syrian Internet users to be conscious and wary of their online activity, others were quick to point out its unprecedented benefits in the midst of a bloody war.

Internet censorship in Syria is less invasive and quite targeted.

- Emiliano De Cristofaro, University College London

A Syrian doctor, who used to work in rural Damascus but has since resettled in the US, spoke of a particular incident in which a paediatrician assisted a pregnant woman to deliver a baby with no medical training in obstetrics.

"Believe it or not, he used YouTube to familiarise himself with the procedure before he started," the doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear for his family who are still in Syria, said.

"The woman came to him many times for prenatal care and she begged him to assist her in the delivery as he was the only doctor in the area."

Meanwhile, Dr Zaher Sahloul, a pulmonologist and president of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), has been treating patients in his homeland for more two years, 10,000km away in Chicago - via Skype.

Several hospitals in areas such as Idlib in northwest Syria, have intensive care units that connect critical care specialists in the US to local doctors and nurses.

Using Skype and webcams they guide medics with limited experience through complicated procedures, transforming the chances of recovery for some patients.

Dr Sahloul has also filmed and uploaded tutorials in Arabic to YouTube to guide doctors in Syria on how to treat external bleeding, clean wounds and suture injuries commonly sustained in conflict zones.

Meanwhile, back at Yousef's house, he breathes a deep sigh of relief as his sister answers his much-anticipated Skype call.

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Al Jazeera
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