As conflict in Syria continues to rage despite a looming cease-fire deadline, new research shows how the use of covert surveillance could be helping Bashar al-Assad’s regime find and target political dissidents.
On Wednesday the Electronic Frontier Foundation published information revealing how a “surveillance malware” disguised as a PDF file is being used to spy on individuals who may be sympathetic to the opposition. According to the EFF, the file’s label misrepresents it as a document concerning the leadership council of the Syrian revolution. It’s delivered via Skype message from a known friend.
Once the file has been downloaded by the unsuspecting user, it can be used to monitor webcam activity, change the notification setting for certain antivirus programs, record key strokes, and steal passwords. In essence, it enables whoever is deploying the tool to take stealth control of the targeted computer while gaining intelligence and tracking online movements.
Surveillance technology has cropped up frequently during the long and bloody protests in Syria. In December, the EU banned export of such technology, but to no avail: In February, CNN reported that supporters of the Assad regime had been deploying a spyware that, according to an analysis conducted by Symantec Corp., infected computers as part of a cyber-espionage campaign. And in March EFF discovered that a site appearing to host Syrian opposition videos was actually an elaborate phishing scheme targeting activists.
These attacks have been linked to the IP address 188.8.131.52, which is associated with the government telecommunications company Syrian Telecom Establishment.
Currently, the United Nations is focused on bringing about the “cessation of armed violence” as part of a six-point peace plan for Syria. To truly protect the Syrian people, the United Nations needs to expand its focus to include an investigation into the role played by surveillance technologies.