When war correspondent Marie Colvin of Sunday Times of London and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed in Syria and other journalists were injured, it wasn't long before there was speculation that authorities had homed in on their satellite phone and used that information to target and kill them.
My first thought was, "Like Dudayev, and that's how the Russians do it. The Russians are whom we have to blame for a good deal of all this." (Gen. Dudayev, the first president of the Chechens, was killed while speaking on his sat phone when Russian reconnaisance homed in on him.)
But that wasn't Jillian York's first thought. Her first thought, following the usual grooves of the "progressives" and the Electronic Frontier Foundation where she works was: how can we blame evil capitalist Western corporations?
Hence, her article at EFF, Satphones, Syria and Surveillance, immediately mentions corporations as the problem and fixates on technology:
Satellite phones can also be tracked by technical means and there is ample technology already on the market for doing so. For example, this portable Thuraya monitoring system by Polish company TS2, which also counts several US government agencies as clients; these systems for monitoring Thuraya and Iridium phones, created by Singaporean company Toplink Pacific; or this satellite phone tracking technology from UK based Delma MMS.
Evil Polish company with evil US government agencies as clients! Evil Singapore and evil UK!
So, without any evidence whatsoever by her own admission, based on pure speculation, she places the blame on corporations. She then cites the notorious Jacob Appelbaum of the open-source circumvention software project Tor who adds the usual anarcho-hacky stuff about poor encryption -- it's all the company's fault if it is hacked:
Security researcher and Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum says that satellite communications systems do not respect user location privacy needs, and aside from surveillance without the cooperation of a satellite phone provider, “such a company may betray a user’s location on purpose or by accident.” Research published last year by the German Horst-Goertz Institute for IT Security, found that satellite phones use weak cryptographic ciphers that could easily be broken by sophisticated attacks. The research identified serious security flaws in the encrpytion systems used by the two competing satellite phone standards, GMR-1 and GMR-2
And so on.
Then, with the usual sleight of hand, the topic is switched away from satellite phone de-encryption and tracking, to email monitoring -- and two more companies are mentioned, one of which no long deals with Syria and the other of which is not implicated in sat phones:
Earlier this week, EFF profiled Italian mass surveillance company Area SpA, which in 2011 was rushing to install mass surveillance gear for Syrian intelligence agents just as the Syrian government was ramping up its violent crackdown on peaceful democratic protesters. As Bloomberg originally reported, Area SpA was to install “monitoring centers” that would give the Syrian government the ability “to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country” as well as “follow targets on flat-screen workstations that display communications and Web use in near-real time alongside graphics that map citizens’ networks of electronic contacts.” After a barrage of media attention and local protests at its Italian headquarters, Area SpA announced in late November that it would not complete the project as planned.
The "finding" was in fact about equipment shipped to Dubai and then used in Syria without the company's knowledge and in defiance of US sanctions against Syria, but the fact that the US government investigated this, and the company said they did not wish to break the law just wasn't good enough for EFF -- they want corporate blood.
(Of course, this same bunch rushes to the defense of Twitter and Google and gushes that they have a great policy when they, too, invoke the notion of "laws that have to be obeyed" and censor tweets or blogs country by country.)
Companies are not human rights groups, and they sell in open markets and they use the same logic that Jillian and her friends use about going into markets like China and then "adopting to their laws" to censor tweets. But if there are sanctions, and stiff penalties, then they have a cost of doing business that is too great, and they don't do business. That's how it works. That's why you have laws, regulations, and fines and not t-shirts and bumper stickers when dealing with business.
But all of this is in fact irrelevant to the tragic death of the journalists because there is no evidence that these companies are relevant to sat phones and are implicated in any way in the deaths of these journalists.
Sure, it's a good thing to get companies not to sell anything to Syria. And it looks as if those caught -- whether having accidently or deliberately sold equipment -- respond appropriately. But this entire article is a smokescreen and deliberately misleading, trying to set up the fake proposition: evil Western companies sell detection equipment to evil Syrian regime.
That's why it was so refreshing indeed to see this article on Foreign Policy's site by Robert Young Pelton in which the author -- who had actually been in Grozny when the Russians bombarded it in 1996-- immediately thought "Chechnya -- journalists -- Dudayev" when he heard about the journalists killed in Homs.
The Russians were able to hone in on Dudayev's sat phone and assassinate him. So were their close military clients, the Syrians.
Pelton grasped what was essential about the Syrian situation: the Russians back it up with armaments, equipment, logistics, advice. He also points to a Fox News story that in fact most likely, the sat phones the rebels had came from Qatar:
Flash forward to Syria today. The opposition Free Syrian Army is officially run by a former air force colonel who commands a barely organized group of army defectors supported by energetic youth. They rely almost entirely on cell-phone service, satellite phones, the Internet, and social media to organize and communicate. Early in February, according to a Fox News report, Qatar provided 3,000 satellite phones, which the Syrian rebels have used to upload numerous impactful videos and stories.
So...where did those 3,000 sat phones come from? Japan? The US? Saudi Arabia? What company? I couldn't find any record of it.
But what Robert Young Pelton focuses on is intent and training and Russia's role -- while the Western media has focused on Western inaction, he says:
What we haven't seen as clearly is the extent to which the Syrian regime (thanks to its Russian advisors) now has the tools of electronic warfare to crush this popular uprising -- and anything that happens to get in the way. Syria is one of Russia's biggest clients for weapons, training, and intelligence. In return for such largesse, it has offered the Russian Navy use of Tartus, a new deep-water military port in the Mediterranean. Moscow sold Damascus nearly $1 billion worth of weapons in 2011, despite growing sanctions against the oppressive Assad regime. With these high-tech weapons comes the less visible Russian-supplied training on technologies, tactics, and strategies.
$1 billion work of weapons! And we're focusing on some Polish company? Or Blue Coat?
Pelton writes movingly of his own time in Chechnya, where he also met Colvin, who covered that war as well. He said he wished she had remembered the lessons of Russia --the duplicity of the Russians, the deadly practice of shelling people using sat phones -- situations which he and she experienced then. He said the first mistake was to stay in the rebels' "media center," actually a four-storey family dwelling.
That was actually my second thought, after "Dudayev". What can you expect if you stay in a compound called "the rebels' media center?" They were likely pinned down, but Marie Colvin bravely reported from this set-up and described that it was "not a military target" -- although naturally a government at war with its people would indeed view the rebels' media center as a target. They would be following foreigners likely from the moment they entered the country, and they would obviously be following rebels even if they somehow overlooked a foreigner. One way or another, using their regular humint, they might not need satellite homing technology -- they could just be following them the old-fashioned way or through electronic bugs.
Pelton also notes that Colvin's persistence in remaining in the building and broadcasting from it, and clearly sympathizing with the rebels would make her a certain target.
The lesson isn't so much what Jacob Appelbaum said -- that carrying a sat phone is itself the deadly giveaway (and he would likely merely seek to encrypt it better) -- but that journalists can't expect to be safe if they go to a reber media center; stay in it overnight; uplink from it when all cell phone coverage is shut off by the government so that they stand out; broadcast from it to the outside world with comments sympathetic to the rebels.
All pretty obvious points -- and with the operative evil actors being 1) Syria and 2) Russia and tragic errors -- and not evil Western companies. They are not absolved if they somehow cravenly sold their equipment to mass murderers just to make a buck, but we have no evidence that they did that. Meanwhile, we do have evidence that Russia sold $1 billion in armaments and training and has an intimdate relationship to this mass murder because they back the regime and defy the international community in attempting to pressure and even remove Assad.
You would think that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, given its history and long experience in covering Russia/Chechnya would have given a little more thought to all this and surely get the Russian piece of it -- but institutional memories, history, this is all eroding.
Hence, Luke Alnutt merely parrots what EFF writes -- as he often rushes to do in retweeting or linking to the Berkman Center gang (Jillian used to be at Berkman).
Alnutt then reprints a really goofy idea from Belgian Stefan Geens
So perhaps one (counterintuitive) place for legal innovation might be to make journalists' communications more visible and distinct, akin to hospitals. Uplink signals from journalist satphones could carry a specific signature that interceptors cannot fail to notice. Reports could be transmitted unencrypted -- so that they are verifiably civilian in nature. By transmitting GPS coordinates in the open, they would tell anyone who is listening where civilian journalists are at work, and where an attack would be illegitimate.
Well, first of all, hospitals' or aid workers' communications aren't open and visible somewhere to everybody -- where does he get that idea?
And walking into the lion's den of Syria, let alone Russia, and broadcasting that you are a foreign journalist?! This is the heighth of naivete. The notion of "transparency" is predicated on being in a nice European society like Belgium where authorities will behave in some decent and accountable matter and not shoot journalists. You can hardly count on that in war zones -- it's insane. And no journalist will go for this extreme notion of how to protect themselves, counterintuitively, by "hiding in plain sight".