As gunfire peppered the streets of Homs, and representatives from over 60 nations met in Tunis to discuss the situation between Syrian rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces yesterday, the western world responded to startling reports surrounding the recent deaths of war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik.
Numerous outlets have reported that Syrian forces may have been targeting journalists, with one Telegraph article reporting that, before the attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik, Lebanon intelligence staff intercepted a discussion between Syrian officers regarding “how they would claim journalists had been killed in crossfire with ‘terrorist groups.’”
Perhaps more startling is the speculation on how the Syrian government might have located the journalists.
In an article published yesterday by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Jillian York and Trevor Timm report that the deceased journalists might have been located by Syrian forces tracking their satellite phones. York and Timm then discuss a number of ways that government entities could locate a person by way of his or her phone:
- Asking or pressuring a private company for the user’s data – This is considered the easiest tactic. Yahoo once handed over a Chinese dissident’s data to the Chinese government. The dissident is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.
- Monitoring equipment – Technology for tracking Iridium, Thuraya and satellite phones is readily on the market for government entities. The companies providing this service often also offer technology for intercepting “voice and text communications and other information.”
- Manual triangulation – only possible if the target is close by.
York and Timm report that, on the whole, satellite phones are not safe for people who do not want their location to be known. Major weaknesses have been found in the encryption systems of the two main satellite phone standards, and a sophisticated attack — one which a government entity would be capable of staging — would most likely break through the ciphers.
This leaves little room for the endangered war correspondent or the civilian hoping to document developments in a war-torn nation using his or her cell phone camera.
Thankfully, security researcher and Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum provides York and Timm with one possible solution — providing satellite phone users the option to send only a spot beam ID and not the full GPS. He tells them, in an email:
“This privacy option should be available to everyone today without any action on their part – it would partially improve the location privacy needs of users. Sadly, direction finding would be entirely unaffected. Also sadly, it will not make the communications secure but it would probably save lives.”
“It’s too bad that journalists have had to die for this discussion to happen,” he adds.
The events in Syria this week served as a grim reminder that the technology and social media revolutions are not only providing the general public with a stronger, more profound voice, they’re also providing new tools to repressive regimes and organized crime networks to succeed in realizing their goals.
In the future, any group that finds itself working in a dangerous environment might want to fully vet the security measures and privacy standards of the phone company they will be using. They also may want to look into the spot beam ID functionality described by Appelbaum.
We could also ramp up the dialogue today, exploring any existing tools (or tools in development) that might be used to maximize safety and privacy for people working in volatile, dangerous environments.