SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Digital Dominion: How the Syrian regime’s mass digital surveillance violates human rights

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Friday , 19 March 2021
The Assad regime conducts mass electronic and digital monitoring of its people. Anyone who dares to voice opposition or fails to proclaim their loyalty is deemed dangerous and quickly falls under suspicion. The privacy, freedom of expression, and the life and safety of millions has been imperiled by a government desperate to control the narrative. A sprawling infrastructure of surveillance, from control of Internet Service Providers (ISP), mobile service providers to aggressive hacking and tracking operations, has facilitated the monitoring, detention, and persecution of critics, journalists, and human rights defenders. This report exposes the monitoring carried out by the Syrian government in order to contribute to accountability for human rights violations and to promote the protection of the right to privacy, so essential for the realization of other rights.

The Assad regime has been able to conduct mass surveillance, in part, because it exercises complete control over the country’s internet activity through the government controlled and regulated telecommunication infrastructure. The state-owned Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (“STE”) is both an internet service provider (ISP) and the official telecommunications regulator. In 2007, the STE solicited bids for a Central Monitoring System with the “the ability to monitor all the networks which use data communication services inside the Syrian territories.” The resulting infrastructure provided the government power to monitor all traffic and to stockpile data for identifying and targeting individuals critical of the regime. Since then, the Assad regime has continued to strengthen this invasive infrastructure by adding content filtering systems to combat political speech, cutting or “blacking out” internet access and service during the uprising and protests, blocking websites critical of or exposing corruption within the Assad regime, as well as temporarily blocking popular websites and online services such as YouTube, Facebook, and Skype.

In conjunction with actively monitoring their own citizens, the Syrian regime, together with third party groups, is hacking websites and individuals critical of the regime. A group that calls themselves the Syrian Electronic Army (“SEA”) is one such state-sanctioned hacking group that targets major news organizations and NGOs as well as local opposition groups and individual activists. Through “phishing” operations, social engineering, malware downloads, and gaining access to passwords and networks through security force intimidation, the SEA and the Assad regime have used these practices to monitor and track down activists and human rights defenders in Syria, who are then tortured and killed. Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has publicly recognized the SEA and the support it has provided the regime by surveilling their dissenters and others who oppose the Syrian regime.

This report details how the Syrian regime proactively monitors dissenters, either directly or through non-state actors, and how that digital monitoring facilitates the broader campaign of control and violence leading to arrests, torture, forced disappearances, and death of Syrian people. The report begins, in Section II, by providing the background on the infrastructure of surveillance and key state and state-sanctioned actors involved in surveillance activities. Next, Section III outlines the human rights implicated and being violated by the states campaign of mass surveillance and violence. Finally, Section IV identifies the direct violation of the rights of Syrian people and human rights defenders that result from this surveillance. An enabling legal and institutional infrastructure has facilitated both the mass surveillance and the accompanying violence carried out by the regime. As a result, human rights defenders, critics, and journalists, have been censored, monitored, hacked and tracked. This targeting has facilitated the detention, torture and extrajudicial killings of countless individuals. The purpose of the report is to document the systematic use of surveillance by the Syrian regime, the human rights violations suffered by those who have been surveilled, and to call upon the international community to seek accountability in Syria.

This Report seeks to shed light on the legal, political, and technological context in which surveillance is used to violate human rights. In doing so, advocates and the global community must push forward reforms to limit the use of surveillance to monitor and punish human rights activists. The analysis in this report provides a framework which journalists and others documenting the violence and human rights crisis in Syria may use to continue reporting on the regime’s use of surveillance of the Syrian people. Finally, by documenting the current situation in Syria, this report hopes to inform broader conversations on state-sponsored surveillance and how it endangers activists and others who speak up against governments and powerful actors. The Assad regime’s use of surveillance as a critical tool to intimidate and eliminate opposition must serve as a warning to the global community of the dangerous effects of the unchecked and broad powers of surveillance to silence and eliminate opposition. Countless critics, journalists, students, and others have been surveilled and persecuted for exercising their human rights to expression and association. This report is only the beginning of this broader conversation about the need to press for limitations in the use of surveillance and to hold the Syrian State accountable for the countless abuses that the Syrian people have endured.

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