Caveat utilitor: Satellite phones can always be tracked

The original blog is posted here.

Caveat utilitor: Satellite phones can always be tracked

The Telegraph in London was the first to report that Syrian government forces could have “locked on” to satellite phone signals to launch the rocket attacks that killed journalists Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik, as well as many Syrian civilians, besides wounding dozens more including two more international journalists. Working out of a makeshift press center in Homs, foreign correspondents and local citizen journalists alike have been using satellite phones to send images of attacks on civilians around the world.

Without evidence, it is impossible to know whether Syrian forces tracked the journalists’ satellite signals to target the attack. And one should keep in mind that the building being used as a makeshift press center in Homs may have been known to many people in the city.

Yet the consensus among technologists devoted to Internet freedom is clear.

“Satellite phone tracking is not only possible, it’s widely used by military and security services,” one human rights-oriented technologist with experience training citizen activists in Syria told CPJ.

Jacob Appelbaum, a technologist associated with the Internet circumvention tool popular among human rights activists known as Tor, was among the first to warn journalists via @ioerror on Twitter: “No matter what – unless you ‘know’ otherwise, your Satellite phone almost certainly discloses your exact GPS location in an insecure manner.”

There are at least three ways to track a satellite phone. Tracking radio frequency emissions is one. “It is relatively simple to receive this signal for a trained technician, ” reports SaferMobile, a U.S.-based nonprofit group dedicated to helping activists, human rights defenders and journalists share information, in a blog this week pegged to the above attack.

Using commercially available tracking devices is another. “There is ample technology already on the market for doing so,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another, San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, wrote in a blog yesterday. Companies including the Polish firm TS2 sell monitoring equipment to track different models of satellite phones. The Italian firm Area SpA sold surveillance equipment to Syria last year in advance of the current crackdown, according to Bloomberg News and EFF.

Finally, satellite phones can be tracked through their own built-in GPS devices or weak encryption protocols. “It is very likely that the GPS location data is transmitted by the sat phone in the clear,” reports Safer Mobile. “Additionally and important as a side note — aside from revealing your location with a sat phone — the encryption used by commercial satellite telephone systems has been recently cracked.”

So what are journalists and citizen journalists to do? In an environment where normal Internet access is either shut down or severely restricted, satellite phones remain a key way to transmit and report information. For now, alternatives such as amateur radio links or — as this report from Syria suggests, using carrier pigeons — are largely infeasible replacements.

Technologists with experience operating in hostile environments tell CPJ that one should use a satellite phone in such situations only with strict radio discipline:

-Avoid using a satellite phone (or any radio frequency based device) from the same position more than once.

-Avoid using a satellite phone or similar device from a location that cannot be easily evacuated in case of attack.

-Keep the maximum length of any transmission to 10 minutes at most, then cease transmitting and change location as soon as possible.

-Avoid having multiple parties transmit from the same location, i.e. a central media center may be too dangerous to operate in a place like Homs, Syria.

Journalist security: An evolving field

Original story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog.

The garden city between the mountains and the sea founded by Vikings in 871 cast an historic hue over the discussion. Journalists from nearly every continent gathered this past weekend to discuss journalist security issues in a hotel in Tønsberg, Norway, outside of which a replica of a Viking ship was being constructed.

Marcela Turati is a Mexican journalist who explained that she never expected to cover violence or organized crime. The founder of Mexico’s first group established by journalists to help each other, Journalists on Foot, she perhaps set the tone when she tossed aside the bravado that often accompanies such forums and frankly said, “We need help in how to handle our fear.”

The journalist security community only began to identify itself as such less than a decade ago in the wake of events since 9/11. It remains an emerging field which now seems to have at least as many questions as answers.

For years journalist security was associated with “hostile environments and emergency first-aid training” provided by private security firms led and staffed almost exclusively by former British military personnel. Such skills remain invaluable for journalists covering ongoing conflicts in nations like Yemen or Libya, or ongoing wars in nations like Afghanistan or Iraq. But one fact remains: In every single nation in conflict around the world–including in both Afghanistan and Iraq–more journalists have been murdered outright than have been killed in combat or other circumstances like suicide bombings.

“I’ve taken one of those classes,” said Kirstin Solberg, who is based in Pakistan for the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, referring to a battlefield awareness and first-aid class. “They help,” she added. “But there are many things they don’t cover.”

Take a matter like how to handle coverage of organized crime. Javier Garza, editorial director of the Mexican newspaper, El Siglo de Torreón, said that he and his colleagues are literally making it up as they go along. They have no doubt earned credibility along the way. Rotating reporters in and out of crime beats to lessen their own stress and make them less of a target, and removing bylines as needed are among the steps he and his colleagues would recommend to others.

But covering organized crime in a nation like Mexico poses another set of challenges. Don’t identify by name the groups involved in shootouts, arrests, or raids, Garza recommended. Take violent stories off the front page as much as possible. In other words, Garza explained, don’t allow yourself as journalists and news outlets to be a conduit for criminal groups seeking to use the press to pass on grisly messages as a way of flaunting their strength to one another.

Or take the issue of sexual assault against journalists. Most of the paramilitary and emergency first-aid courses offered by private security firms did not include separate training or awareness on how to avoid sexual assaults. The journalist security community took most of their cues from these military-oriented experts and courses. Yet, some relief agencies working in unpredictable, field situations have long included sexual assault avoidance and awareness as part of their security training curriculum.

Or take the issue of stress reactions by journalists covering violent or traumatic events. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma only began offering fellowships to journalists in 1999. Since then, the journalist trauma awareness community has worked to have the matter integrated into journalist security training curriculums. Another security concern for journalists that has become only more apparent in recent years is the need for digital information and communications security. How to protect notes and documents on your hard drive, like how to safely communicate with sources and editors are increasingly complex questions in an interconnected world of ever-evolving technology.

Whether it’s safe or even wise to be either on Facebook (or to be too transparent on it) was one of the last points of discussion. Afterward, I noticed that my friend and colleague, the Mexican editor Garza, posted a picture on Facebook of the Viking ship replica being built outside the hotel.

Frank Smyth is CPJ’s Washington representative and journalist security coordinator. He has reported on armed conflicts, organized crime, and human rights from nations including El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @SmythFrank.

April 7, 2011 2:10 PM ET