As unrest in Syria erupted into public demonstrations and a bloody crackdown that has claimed over 6,000 lives in the last year, the regime of Bashar al-Assad sought to neutralize one of the most potent tools in the protesters’ arsenal: text messages sent via mobile phones.
The Syrian government has ordered blocks on text messages when they contain politically sensitive terms such as “revolution” or “demonstration,” according to two people familiar with the filtering systems. A unit of the Syrian intelligence apparatus, known as “Branch 225,” often issues the instructions on which messages to block, they say.
Syriatel Mobile Telecom SA, the country’s largest mobile-phone operator, conducts the blocking with equipment from Cellusys Ltd., a privately-held company based in Dublin, according to one of the people, who is familiar with the filtering.
Cellusys delivered a filtering system to Syriatel in 2008 as the mobile operator struggled to combat viruses and spam, which can be blocked by such gear, according to Cellusys Chief Executive Officer Dawood Ghalaieny. Syriatel is controlled by Rami Makhluf, cousin of President Assad, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which enacted sanctions against the company last year.
In addition, another Irish company, AdaptiveMobile Security Ltd., which is also based in Dublin, has supplied message-filtering technology to MTN Syria, the country’s second-largest mobile operator, according to four people familiar with that system. While AdaptiveMobile executives declined to comment for this story, in interviews last year concerning the sale of its product to a mobile operator in Iran, they said its technology is for blocking spam, viruses and inappropriate content, not political repression.
The sales by Cellusys and AdaptiveMobile were legal. The European Union tightened restrictions last year on sales of equipment to Syria that can be used for internal repression, however it’s unclear whether the gear is prohibited by the new rules.
The filtering of text messages has curbed the protesters’ ability to use technologies that helped organize and fuel dissent in other countries across the Middle East and topple autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, according to political opposition groups.
“When the government shuts off those modes of communications, the opposition is that much more constrained,” says Rafif Jouejati, a McLean, Virginia-based spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella organization of Syrian groups that are staging protests.
‘They Control It’
Cellusys says it hasn’t sent workers to the country since 2009 and isn’t sure how its technology is being used today.
“Once they have the systems, they control it,” says Ghalaieny. “If it is used for something else, there is not much that can be done.”
In response to questions sent by e-mail, AdaptiveMobile CEO Brian Collins replied in writing that Bloomberg’s information was incorrect without providing specifics. AdaptiveMobile executives did not respond to follow-up inquiries.
The Syrian government’s escalating efforts to block opponents’ text messages are illustrated by a list said to document the words and phrases being filtered on Syriatel’s network, obtained by Bloomberg News. The document’s authenticity couldn’t be independently verified, because Syriatel and the Syrian Embassy in the U.S. didn’t respond to several phone calls and e-mails. It contains only one reference to Syriatel and doesn’t bear a company logo.
Orders From 225
Many of the facts in the document, however, were not publicly known and have been corroborated by Bloomberg News. For instance, the bottom of the document has several notations that indicate a Cellusys technology called SMS Defence is being used to filter the text messages. The company’s sale of its message-filtering technology to Syriatel was confirmed by Cellusys after Bloomberg asked about its inclusion on the document.
The document also indicates that Syria’s intelligence unit, “225,” issued many of the text-message filtering orders, as described by two of the people with knowledge of the filtering.
The document suggests a government trying to stay ahead of burgeoning unrest by adding scores of new political words and phrases, mostly in Arabic.
About half of the 300 filters include the dates they were requested, which range from November 2010 to December 2011. More than two-thirds relate to political unrest, while the rest appear to target spam or viruses.
Flurry of Filtering
Nearly half of the filters were requested by “225,” according to the document. It is the same intelligence unit that issues orders to block web sites inside of Syria, according to human rights groups. The unit also issues orders for blocking of some spam and viruses on the mobile network for fear they could be used to disseminate information to Syrians, according to two people familiar with the systems.
The filters are often instructed to block text messages, while sending “positive acknowledgment” to the sender that the message has been delivered, according to the document.
According to the document, a flurry of filtering began in February of last year, amid fledgling signs of dissent. A “Day of Rage” protest had been planned for February 5, 2011, but it drew only small crowds. Nonetheless, the regime soon went to work. On February 23, Syriatel was instructed to filter messages containing Arabic phrases for “Syrian rage” and “rage of the Syrian.” In the following days, numerous other phrases relating to dissident activities were added to the list.
Day of Rage
Anger towards the regime escalated in early March, when a group of boys between the ages of 10 and 15, suspected of spray-painting revolutionary slogans on walls in Daraa, were arrested and allegedly tortured by local police. Some were burned and others had their fingernails pulled out, human rights activists said in news reports.
As plans circulated for another “Day of Rage” protest for March 15, new filtering requests streamed into Syriatel. On March 13, it was instructed to block messages containing the phrases “We invite/call you to a demonstration” and “to overthrow the regime.” And the day before a March 25 protest to follow Friday prayers, “225” instructed Syriatel to block messages containing the phrases “Syrian Men” and “Friday Prayers,” according to the document.
Strike for Dignity
During that day’s protests, troops opened fire in southern Syria, killing several demonstrators, according to news reports. The next day, 225 instructed Syriatel to block messages containing the word “massacres.”
Efforts to hinder protesters continued as recently as December. Opposition groups planned a “Strike for Dignity,” to begin on December 11 and last several weeks. Market shops would close, university and government employees would leave work and roadways would be blocked. The day before the strike, 225 instructed Syriatel to block messages with various terms for “strike” or “dignity.”
Similar phrases are also being blocked at MTN Syria, the No. 2, mobile operator, according to two of the sources familiar with the filtering and opponents of the Syrian regime. “Filtering is happening across the board, regardless of the mobile carrier,” says Jouejati, of the Local Coordination Committees.
In an e-mailed statement, Rich Mkhondo, corporate affairs executive for Johannesburg-based MTN Group Ltd., said that the company is “a committed corporate citizen of Syria” that complies with the country’s laws and regulations.
Human Rights Abuses
“Accordingly, we conduct our business in line with conditions provided for in our operating license,” he said.
The company owns 75 percent of MTN Syria, according to its 2010 annual report.
Human rights groups say the companies should have known better than to supply filtering technologies to Syria. A U.S. State Department’s 2008 human rights report, for instance, stated that the country’s security forces “committed numerous, serious human rights abuses” and “tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees.”
“The decision by various Europeans to sell this technology to Syria is very problematic,” says Mara Karlin, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former Pentagon official who advised on U.S. policy for the Middle East. “We’re seeing the fruits of this right now.”
Adds Jouejati, of the Local Coordination Committees: “It’s like putting a gun in someone’s hand and saying ‘I can’t help the way the person uses it.’”
Ghalaieny of Cellusys says the criticism is unfair. Other firms sell technology exclusively for monitoring and surveillance, but Cellusys frees mobile networks of spam and viruses in order to keep them functioning at a high level, he says.
In an hour-long telephone interview, he compared his company’s situation to that of automaker Toyota. In news footage from fighting across Afghanistan and Libya, the company’s Hilux pick-up trucks can be seen in combat situations with machine guns mounted in the bed of the truck. Says Ghalaieny: “I doubt there’s anyone at Toyota saying we need to discontinue selling the Hilux pick-up truck.”