Where even cellphones aren’t safe
April 9th, 2011

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.

Full article by Brian Bennett in the Los Angeles Times

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.

It’s one reason the US 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.

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.

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