Targetted killing of journalists Bab Amr possible [even probable] through their own Satellite phones – UPDATED

Marie Colvin said in November 2010:
“War reporting has changed greatly in just the last few years. Now we go to war with a satellite phone, laptop, video camera and a flak jacket. I point my satellite phone to south southwest in Afghanistan, press a button and I have filed”.

When she made that remark, she was speaking at St. Bride’s Church in London in November 2010, at a memorial service for journalists who have died in the line of duty. She said that, earlier: “I first went to war with a typewriter, and learned to tap out a telex tape. It could take days to get from the front to a telephone or telex machine”. The full text of Marie Colvin’s speech was eepublished the day of her death in The Guardian, here.

What she did not think of, and may not have known, at the time she spoke those words, was that when she used her satellite phone to file her material a year and a half later, from beseiged Baba Arm in the Syrian city of Homs, her coordinates were captured and used for targetting by military artillery.

The use of her satellite phone may have killed her. Electronics experts say [see below] that if journalists must use their satellite phones in battlefield conditions, they should keep a distance from the phone: “If you have to get the signal out – do so safely and move your ass”.

In the few minutes after the news broke — in the morning, February 22nd — of the killing by shelling of Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik in Baba Amr, Homs [and the wounding of at least three other journalists working in the same "Media Center"] the horrible possibility dawned that they had been tracked and targetted after using their satellite phones and other equipment to upload their news reports and photos.

Satellite phones and computers are apparently not allowed into Syria.

Neither, for the most part, are journalists.

But Marie Colvin and her colleagues managed to get in from Lebanon with the help of smugglers working with the Free Syria Army [FSA] which is trapped, with some 28,000 Syrian civilians, in the Baba Amr quarter of Homs, where they have been subjected to sharply increased shelling, this week, by the Syrian Army which claims to be fighting “Islamic terrorists”…

Syrian Army snipers are said to be stationed at the perimeter of the Baba Amr area, and shoot all those trying to leave, or enter. [But, the smuggler's apparently have one route that is being used...]

The Syrian Army might not have the latest technical capability to track Satphone signals and “triangulate” targetteting based on this … But again, they might. Or, they might have friends and allies and mercenaries who are skilled in this, and who would also have the latest technology with which to do it…

The Telegraph [London] reported here that Colvin, Ochlik and their colleagues were “fired on as they tried to flee a makeshift press centre that had suffered a direct hit from a shell. Witnesses said they were killed by a rocket-propelled grenade as they emerged from the ruins of the press centre, which was next door to a hospital. Frederic Mitterrand, the French culture minister, said they had been ‘pursued as they tried to flee the bombardment’ … Reporters working in Homs, which has been under siege since Feb 4, had become concerned in recent days that Syrian forces had ‘locked on’ to their satellite phone signals and attacked the buildings from which they were coming”.

The Globe and Mail of Canada wrote that: “The press centre was apparently the only place in the city with a ‘live feed’ for broadcasters and satellite phones emitting a near-constant signal. Syrian government forces could triangulate the location of the satellite transmission. Intelligence agencies around the world track phone and satellite signals to target enemies. Syrian activists said they took specific measures to avoid being detected when using satellite phones, such as limiting the duration of their calls, and changing locations”. This is published here.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote, here that “There are a few different ways by which satellite phones can be tracked. The first—and easiest for a government actor—would be to simply ask or pressure a company to hand over user data … Satellite phones can also be tracked by technical means and there is ample technology already on the market for doing so … Authorities can find the position of a satellite phone using manual triangulation, but in order to track a phone in this manner, the individual would need to be relatively close by. Nowadays, however, most satellite phones utilize GPS, making them even easier to track using products widely available on the market such as those mentioned above. Some of these products allow not only for GPS tracking, but also for interception of voice and text communications and other information … Colvin has put a human face on a problem that has plagued citizens of the Middle East for years now: surveillance equipment being used by despotic governments to track down journalists and activists, like provided to them by Western technology companies. Now it’s possible this equipment directly led the murder of an American journalist”.

David Burgess wrote on his blog, The OpenBTS Chronicles, here, that the danger for a journalist to use a satellite phone in a combat zone is “about the fact that you are transmitting a distinctive radio signal”:
“Regardless of encryption, authentication, etc., the mere existence of one of these radio signals sends a message to an observing military force: There’s someone over there with fancy comms and it’s not us. That can be a very dangerous message”.

The SaferMobiles website subsequently published an article entitled: “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid of Satellite phones in Insecure Locations”, posted here which advises that:
“Nothing will prevent location discovery with a satellite phone, other than not using the device”, and “IF you must use one, keep your conversations as short as possible. Keep in mind that keeping a conversation short is only relevant if you change your location immediately following a call”.

Here is an international Twitter exchange between technically-proficient tweeters who say not only is it possible — they also warn, it is probable. “Keep a distance before using a Satphone”, one warns MSFnce-Fra [Medecins Sans Frontiers-France]. He also tweeted that extreme precision in targetting is not needed: “just a 100 meters precision is enough to wipe the place”.

Another person in the exchange warned: “If you have to get the signal out – do so safely and move your ass”.

He added: “No matter what – unless you *know* otherwise, your Satellite phone almost certainly discloses your exact GPS location in an insecure manner”.

And, he recommended [without any evident commercial motive] using this product, a GSMK Cryptophone, with the link he provided here.

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Here are some excerpts from this interesting exchange on Twitter [the top ones are the more recent]:

David Burgess ? @dburgess00
@Katrinskaya @safermobile @jilliancyork my $0.02: openbts.blogspot.com/2012/02/some-c…
[ http://openbts.blogspot.com/2012/02/some-comments-on-satellite-phones.html ]

Elasti Girl ? @Katrinskaya
Were journos in #Syria targeted by their sat phones? @safermobile explains how that’s possible: bit.ly/xQumFh cc @jilliancyork
[ https://safermobile.org/be-afraid-be-very-afraid-of-satellite-phones-in-insecure-locations/]

Jillian C. York ? @jilliancyork
Satphones, Syria, and Surveillance by @jilliancyork and @WLLegal for @EFF – goo.gl/oxbT9 (+1 to @ioerror)

Okhin @okhin
@MSF_france dites à vos agents de se mettre à l’écart avant d’utiliser un téléphone sat. Ils sont utilisés pour guider l’artillerie. [= "Tell your people/staff to stay a distance away before using a satellite phone. They are used to guide artillery" ]

Okhin @okhin
@asteris not sure there’s a need for tech help. I think it’s basic military transmission tactics to triangulate a signal.

Okhin @okhin
@asteris @Katrinskaya @csoghoian I think Assad does not need extreme precision, just a 100 meters precision is enough to wipe the place

Asteris Masouras @asteris
@okhin triangulating broadcasts is one thing, locking on to a specific signal & directing precision fire to it another

Okhin @okhin
@asteris arstechnica.com/business/news/… for the eavesdroppping part at least. I guess triangulating a satphone does not require to crack it.
2:27 PM – 23 Feb 12 via web • Details

Asteris Masouras @asteris
We need a serious investigation in the satphone targeting issue, at any rate, along w full registry of companies producing such tech #Homs

David Burgess @dburgess00
@Katrinskaya @ioerror Thuraya absolutely knows your location. Do you trust Thuraya’s employee screening procedures with your life?

Aaron Huslage @huslage
@ioerror they can still be sniffed over the air. How does Tor help with deniability in the case of a point-to-point link?

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
If you are using a Satellite phone for *data* in Syria or elsewhere – use Tor! Your communications are trivial to intercept.

Elasti Girl @Katrinskaya
@ioerror Privacy IS vital security often and in many places. Never understood the weird way in which we separate privacy and security.
Retweeted by Jacob Appelbaum

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
@matt_mcc @huslage Of course not. Different threats. If you have to get the signal out – do so safely and move your ass.

Matt McClellan @matt_mcc
@ioerror @huslage don’t need content for targeting
from Ellicott City, MD

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
No matter what – unless you *know* otherwise, your Satellite phone almost certainly discloses your exact GPS location in an insecure manner.

hi @BannedFromOz
@Voulnet supposedly the user would have to purposely lower the security settings thru a series of steps in order for an attack to happen.

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
If you are using a Satellite phone for voice calls – stop unless you’re using cryptophone: cryptophone.de/en/products/sa… = GSMK Cryptophone [http://www.cryptophone.de/en/products/satellite/cp-t3/]. The information on the product page linked says: “The CryptoPhone T3 Thuraya satellite option is the perfect solution for secure communications in areas without GSM coverage or if you do not wish to depend on local network infrastructure”.

Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror
If you are using a Satellite phone for *data* in Syria or elsewhere – use Tor! Your communications are trivial to intercept.

Christopher Soghoian @csoghoian
I wonder which surveillance vendor sold Syrian gov the gear it used to “lock-in” to sat phones of murdered journalists. telegraph.co.uk/news/9099325/M… Retweeted by Jacob Appelbaum
[ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9099325/Marie-Colvin-Syria-regime-accused-of-murder-in-besieged-Homs.html ]

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This last tweet links to an updated article published here by the British daily paper, The Telegraph, which mentions the possibility that tracking of Satellite/Satphone/Satellite computer signals may indeed have been used to deliberately target the journalists working in the FSA “Media Center” yesterday, which we cited in our previous post, yesterday.

The Telegraph also reported that “Hours before she died, Colvin had given interviews to several broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4 and CNN in which she described the bloodshed as ‘absolutely sickening’. She also accused Mr Assad’s forces of ‘murder’ and said it was ‘a complete and utter lie that they are only
targeting terrorists…the Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians’. Sources in Damascus confirmed that Syrians, including Mr Assad, would have been able to watch Colvin’s broadcasts – a fact that could have sealed her fate”…

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