Digital safety in the world’s most dangerous war zone

By Deirdre Collings and Robert Muggah
Originally published on iPolitics

In war-torn Syria, the contents of one’s phone mean the difference between life and death. “My phone is my lifeline,” Umm Hassan told us, one of the more than 150,000 Syrian citizens fleeing the destruction of Eastern Ghouta last month, as regime forces moved in. “But, please help me. How do I delete everything on it?”

For refugees and migrants everywhere, mobile phones are their most valued possession, vital for staying connected to family members, support networks, and life-saving information. According to the United Nation’s refugee agency, UNHCR, many people forced to flee choose connectivity over food. Refugees, on average, spend a third or more of their income on mobile credit.

In Syria, mobile connectivity is critical, not just for the displaced, but for everyone affected by war, including local organizations delivering emergency relief to desperate communities. Humanitarian organizations like the White Helmets similarly depend on phones to reach the most vulnerable, while human rights activists rely on connectivity to document war crimes and make their voices heard.

Though mobile phones are revolutionising humanitarian aid and human rights activism, they also expose their owners (and all of their contacts) to dangerous risks. When phone devices are infiltrated by malware, not only can phones be rendered dysfunctional, but sensitive data can be exposed to adversaries and criminals, often with grave result.

In this Feb. 11, 2016, file photo, children peer from a partially destroyed home in Aleppo, Syria. (Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP, File)

For many Syrians fleeing the destruction and takeover of their homes, phones have become a dangerous liability. Treasured information — a photo of a levelled homestead, a social media account, personal messages with family, friends and colleagues — is of great interest to occupying forces. Phones are taken. Passwords are extracted. ‘Inappropriate’ phone content can lead to detainment, imprisonment, torture, and even summary execution.

Digital safety is more important than ever in today’s battlefields. A Canadian-run initiative, SalamaTech, has provided front-line digital support to relief and human rights groups for the past six years. In the process, it has collected countless testimonies about how Syrians have suffered because of seemingly harmless information left on their phones or social media profiles.

Syrian civilians have been tortured for their Facebook and other online passwords. Take the case of Ahmad, who together with a group of other young men his age, was arrested because of the contents of their mobile phones. They were stopped at a checkpoint, their phones were seized and their Facebook accounts checked. When soldiers saw something inappropriate – “liking” a wrong page, for example – they were arrested.

Or consider Salweh, another former detainee, who explained to us that most of the 22 women and girls in her cell where interred because of their suspected online activities after their phones were seized. As Salweh explains: “The Syrian security officers blame the revolution on Facebook, and how Syrians misused it. They are obsessed with this idea that anyone who carries a mobile phone is suspect.”

As regime forces bombarded Eastern Ghouta last month, SalamaTech delivered targeted assistance to help Syrian civilians erase their digital tracks. Three SalamaTech digital safety responders spent most of March helping local residents erase data from their computers, phones, social media profiles and servers. For citizens who were already detained, they worked around the clock to disable their social media accounts – in the hopes that this could at least protect their friends and loved ones.​

Many women left behind in Ghouta, separated from their husbands and sons, are especially fearful. They simply cannot abandon their phones. Yet they are terrified that the phone’s contents might, arbitrarily, be considered rebellious by the occupying regime. And while they are active users of mobile phones, many of them simply do not know how to delete photos, erase messages or disable their social media accounts.

Women awaiting transfer to shelters in Damascus, the heart of the regime, were terrified. Many of them chose this option – to stay close to areas they knew rather then to be bussed to areas unknown. But what to do with their phones? Again a Canadian — this time living in Ottawa — came to the rescue. The SalamaTech coordinator connected online with women like Umm Hassan and others, guiding them, step-by-step, to clean their phones.

While slipping out of the headlines, Syria’s war is not over. The regime continues to advance, generating horrific civilian casualties in its wake. As the citizens in vanquished areas flee or remain, their phones continue to serve as life-lines and death traps. Canadians have been at the forefront of saving lives in this matter. The Canadian government, as it ponders how to better help Syrian civilians — especially women — has a real opportunity to accelerate its protection and assistance on the ground and in cyberspace.

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