Fear is now an integral part of life in cities and towns across Syria. As our ongoing Syria Witness series has illustrated, average citizens in places like Homs, Hama and Deir Azzour live in constant fear. Outbreaks of violence between Syrian government and opposition forces are a daily occurrence.
Shabiha mercenaries are said to roam the streets, intimidating or killing innocent civilians. Reports have surfaced that children have been summarily tortured or shot in places like Houla. According to Syria Tracker, an estimated 15,000 civilians have been killed since the crisis began 15 month ago.
Online, the fear is mirrored. Syrian activist groups like the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Shams News Network used free tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Bambuser to illustrate incidents of terror for the wider world. And even though not every video, image or tweet can be independently authenticated, this type of real-time social archiving of a humanitarian catastrophe has been deemed crucial in a situation in which a regime denies foreign media organizations access to what is essentially a war zone.
Still, even the social tools of our times are not necessarily safe when it comes to the distribution of information. Experts agree that cyber surveillance in Syria is rampant. IP addresses embedded in e-mail messages and web browsers are easily traceable and can lead authorities to the homes or phones of end users. Social networking and user video websites are routinely blocked. Now, it appears the black veil descending over Syria’s Internet is getting darker.
Proxy software searches are up
According to Google Trends, the search terms “hotspot” (referring to free proxy software Hotspot Shield) have surged 1,200 percent in the past seven days inside Syria. “Proxy” and “Tor” (a client to make web surfing anonymous) spiked 750 percent. They are rarely, if ever, on the top ten list of search terms. (Read this companion post about the state of Internet access in Syria in recent weeks from Digital Frontiers Managing Editor Doug Bernard.)
Part of the reason for the surge may have been news that broke last week that one of the most popular proxy clients, Green Simurgh, which is used widely to conceal Internet identity in Syria and Iran, may have been compromised. ComputerWorld reported that copies of Green Simurgh had been found to contain Trojan malware that records usernames, passwords and sites visited, and logs every keystroke. So, overnight, the tool most widely used to protect web users became their worst enemy. Many Syrians are scrambling for alternatives. (The original report comes from Citizen Lab at the University on Toronto which is based on the work of Morgan Marquis-Biore.)
More secure options
One Canadian software developer called Psiphon has developed an open source client as part of their suite of tools called Psiphon 3. According to their website, Psiphon 3 “delivers unmatched agility in anti-blocking techniques while presenting users with a very simple “one click” user interface…. Psiphon 3’s client-based architecture enables advanced circumvention logic and complete IP protocol tunneling that’s not possible with a web rewriting proxy.”
“Psiphon 3’s client-based architecture enables advanced circumvention logic and complete IP protocol tunneling that’s not possible with a web rewriting proxy.” – Psiphon website.
Put simply, Psiphon 3 is a Windows-based client that uses a tunneling technique that toggles between several different secure protocols which change seamlessly. The software operates on a flash drive and can be pulled out if a user feels their identity has been compromised. (Full disclosure: Psiphon is also a technology partner of Voice of America.)
Speaking with us, Psiphon CEO Rafal Rohozinski said that the firm has been deploying Psiphon 3 through their on-the-ground networks in Syria since January 2012. An independent analyst who specializes in Syrian circumvention issues but requested anonymity for his safety told VOA that in the last two weeks the number of logged in users has surged to as many as 20,000 to 40,000 Syrians daily. Psiphon data also indicates that users stay logged in securely from 10 minutes to up to an hour, suggesting that the service is being used for video, voice and text chat.
How to get Psiphon 3
For Syrians (or anyone else for that matter) who would like to try the Psiphon 3 as an alternative to Hotspot, Green Simurgh or Tor, the steps are quite easy:
- Open your web browser and log on to a web-based e-mail service that has a secure web connection by default such as Gmail. (This means, use a web-based service but MAKE SURE https:// not http:// is in the address bar.)
- After you are securely logged in, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a link to download the client to your computer. Do NOT do this from an e-mail client such as Microsoft Outlook or Thunderbird or the mail client on your mobile phone. Again, use https://.
- Follow the instructions and install the program. Psiphon 3 only works on Windows-based systems but the open source project says they are working for versions that work on Mac OS X and Android-based phones. So stay tuned.
Secure internet access is considered a fundamental right and is essential in making sure that the wider world remains aware of the ongoing crisis in Syria and that information flows freely. Feel free to let us know your thoughts on how the software works in the comments below. (Syrians, please use a secure client and then use the Disqus comment field instead of Facebook if you need to post anonymously.)
Davin Hutchins is Consulting Editor of Middle East Voices. Hutchins brings 17 years of journalism experience to VOA after working with media organizations such as CNN, Tech TV, Huffington Post and PBS. He specializes in news, documentaries and new media with an emphasis on international social issues, media training and online delivery platforms. Hutchins lived five years in the Middle East and covers the dynamic changes that have been triggered by the Arab Spring.