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Where even cellphones aren't safe

In authoritarian regimes, sending emails and using Facebook can be dangerous for activists. The U.S. State Department seeks to train them to protect themselves online.

April 09, 2011|By Brian Bennett
  • A political protester works on his computer during February protests in Manama, Bahrain.
A political protester works on his computer during February protests in… (Hasan Jamali, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Los Angeles Times

Mohammed Maskati's cellphone was his lifeline to fellow human rights activists in strife-torn Bahrain. So when his line went dead in mid-March, he checked with the local phone company. His account, they told him, had been canceled.

Even worse, Maskati said, he discovered that Bahraini authorities used records of his calls, plus texts and emails sent from his phone, as a secret road map to crack down on his network of pro-democracy advocates.

Nor did the harassment stop when Maskati got a new phone and number. He soon received anonymous death threats. Then, in a predawn raid Saturday, armed men in masks and black uniforms forced their way into his home. They bound and beat him and, to humiliate him, shaved half of his head.

"The government is monitoring emails and calls and everything," Maskati, who is president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said in a phone interview from the capital, Manama. "They are especially monitoring those who are doing political reform."

Twitter feeds and Facebook pages have accelerated the pace at which protesters have amassed supporters to demand regime change in countries across the Middle East and North Africa. But in a growing number of cases, local intelligence and security agencies have begun tracing those electronic trails to arrest or intimidate protest leaders and supporters.

More than 40 governments now restrict access to the Internet, and many use cyber-tools to spy on political opponents, according to the State Department's annual report on human rights, which was released Friday.

"Some censored websites for political reasons," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters. "And in a number of countries, democracy and human rights activists and independent bloggers found their emails hacked or their computers infected with spyware that reported back on their every keystroke. Digital activists have been tortured so they would reveal their passwords and implicate their colleagues."

It's one reason the State Department is seeking to augment a little-known program to help people in authoritarian regimes protect their online identities, email, cellphones and other private communications from bugging and censors.

Since 2008, the so-called Internet freedom initiative has brought more than 5,000 political activists to more than 100 training sessions in such countries as Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Trainees are taught to use encrypted Internet tunnels, some developed with U.S. government funding, that hide a user's location and identity.

Attendees also are told how to install and use publicly available encryption software to protect text messages on their cellphones.

The trainers show how government monitors can use the global positioning chip in a cellphone to track the user's movements. They have promoted software designed to hide the identities of cellphone users and have shown Web surfers how to get around Internet firewalls erected to restrict access to certain websites.

When asked whether there are counter-terrorism concerns that these techniques might fall into the wrong hands, officials said the lessons only focus on publicly available technology — and organized terrorist groups are already familiar with these methods.

How well the program works is unclear. The State Department does not release internal monitoring reports in order to protect the organizations and activists involved, an official said. But many governments still have been able to keep up.

Maskati joined the classes held in Beirut in January. He has since taken precautions on his home computer to encrypt emails and Internet activity. He also learned to electronically sweep his laptop for spyware designed to secretly transmit copies of his files and contacts to government snoops.

But Maskati said many political activists in Bahrain find the encryption techniques burdensome, and the applications to protect cellphone contacts and encrypt text messages are difficult to install and use. And all Maskati's training could not prevent Saturday's raid on his house.

"Most activists don't understand security," said Scott Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for Middle East policy. "We should be putting more information and more tools out there."

That may soon happen. The State Department has spent only $20 million of the $50 million that Congress has authorized for the program since 2008. The department is reviewing proposals for how best to spend the remainder.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), are considering whether to reallocate the next round of funding. They want more spent on technology to help Web users in China, Iran and other closed societies circumvent digital firewalls and gain access to U.S.-funded programs from Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia.

Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said the State Department should pay for known technology to protect Internet users rather than provide seed money to develop new systems.

"Rather than peddling around with mini-grants and a phony so-called venture capital strategy, we could really make history," he said.

Clinton has argued that a one-size-fits-all approach is too narrow, however.

"We support multiple tools, so if repressive governments figure out how to target one, others are available," she told students at George Washington University in February.

Clinton said the U.S. must help pro-democracy advocates around the world stay "one step ahead of the censors, the hackers and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online."

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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