Syrians Use Old and New Tools to Stay Online During Internet Shutdown
UPDATE 12-1-12: As of 14:32:10 UTC, Renesys reports that Syria is back online
Information coming out of Syria has slowed to a trickle in the wake of Thursday’s country-wide communications shutdown, which included nearly all Internet traffic and intermittent cellular network and landline outages. Earlier today, Renesys reported that the last five networks that had survived the initial outage were off the air. In the meantime, experts have cast a skeptical eye on the Syrian Ministry of Information’s claims that the outage is the result of sabotage by “terrorists,” a term that the Assad regime has frequently used to describe the opposition. Matthew Prince speculates on the Cloudflare blog:
While we cannot know for sure, our network team estimates that Syria likely has a small number of edge routers. All the edge routers are controlled by Syrian Telecommunications. The systematic way in which routes were withdrawn suggests that this was done through updates in router configurations, not through a physical failure or cable cut.
Even under these adverse conditions, some Syrians have found ways to get online, stay in touch with family and loved ones abroad, and keep the world appraised of events on the ground at a time when fighting has escalated and reliable intelligence is scarce. Dlshad Othman, a Syrian activist and IT specialist, estimates that the number of people online in Syria at the moment is probably "less than 1,000,” yet Global Voices reports that videos of protests are still finding their way online.
Just how are these few remaining Syrians managing to stay online? In a news briefing on Thursday, U.S. Department of State spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated that the Department has—as part of its non-lethal aid package—provided over 2,000 “communications kits and equipment” to Syrians, including computers, phones, and cameras. She went on to praise the safety and security of the equipment provided by the U.S. government:
They are all designed to be independent from and able to circumvent the Syrian domestic network precisely for the reason of keeping them safe, keeping them secure from regime tampering, from regime listening, from regime interruption.
We don’t know exactly what these kits contain (though we can safely assume that it’s not 'Internet in a Suitcase,' a project in progress at New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute aimed that solving exactly this problem) but EFF is skeptical of any claim concerning the security and privacy of this equipment. The Assad regime has access to surveillance technology that allows them to track the location of satellite phone users, technology that may have been used to target and kill journalist Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London and French photographer Rémi Ochlik in the beseiged city of Homs earlier this year. Alternative methods, such as sending data packets over HAM radio, pose similar security risks. Locational privacy is especially vital given that even though the opposition may have access to some ground-to-air rockets, the Assad regime still has air superiority.
In the meantime, Syrians with phone access can connect to the Internet using dial-up modems. Telecomix has provided the following dial-up numbers: +46850009990 +492317299993 +4953160941030 user:telecomix ,password:telecomix or +3317289015.
Syrians with working phones can also post to Twitter using Speak2Tweet, a service that was developed by Twitter and Facebook and launched during the 2011 Internet shutdown in Egypt. Speak2Tweet allows people to compose and send tweets by calling a number and speaking into their phones. Syrians may use the following numbers: +90 212 339 1447 or +30 21 1 198 2716 or +39 06 62207294 or +1 650 419 4196, and a link to an audio file containing their message will be tweeted to the Speak2Tweet. The service has posted dozens of new messages since it was reinstated earlier today, but there is no way to confirm that these messages are coming from inside of Syria.
In situations where safe channels of communication are unavailable, Syrians may sometimes have to choose between unsafe and insecure communications tools and silence. EFF advocates informed decision-making and risk-taking. We encourage Syrians to use caution when using dial-up connections and satellite phones and we hope for the security and safety of all Syrians, and a swift end to this attack on their fundamental right to free expression.