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If you own a shop in Syria, you are sure to prominently post a picture of Bashar Al-Assad, the dictator, and maybe his smiling family too. You do this perhaps because you like the guy, but more likely, you do this to avoid problems. You also know that your phone calls are listened to, your internet activity is monitored, and that secret police will follow you and find you if they need to. You know how pervasive and all-knowing the state is in society.
When I was in Syria, I was followed by the secret police. I was scolded by Internet cafe owners not to use skype because the government forbade it (they apparently hadn't cracked the encryption). Many websites were blocked by the state Internet firewalls.
But when people know what the government does, they also know how to work around it.
While the rules seem oppressive in Syria, the transparency about state surveillance and censorship was refreshing for this US citizen. In the US state surveillance and censorship is going on as well, but it is not at all transparent. Vague Patriot Act language is about the best description we get about the US government snooping on citizens.
When US Citizens cried foul, the US Government blocked legal action claiming that the action would reveal state secrets. Meanwhile the US media minimized public outrage by using the 1950's terminology of "wiretapping" to discuss the activity. Calling this "wiretapping" is an enormous understatement. We aren't talking about some FBI guy outside a crook's house with an earpiece and a search warrant. Given the technology available, and the legal framework created by the patriot act, we are likely talking about a massive data collection and processing effort of every email and phone conversation in the US. These data are collected and analyzed in real time with powerful algorithms identifying suspicious activity.
But we will likely never know the extent of state surveillance in the US - and a majority of our public will continue to incorrectly assume that email, phone conversations and browsing activity are private.
In Syria at least everyone assumes that none of this is private.
Sitting inside an apartment in Damascus, Syria, I was frustrated that a website I wanted to access was blocked.
I was curious about how porous the Syrian Internet firewalls were. With a little work, I began using a server in the US to pull up websites banned in Syria and then stream them via an encrypted tunnel over an obscure port to my laptop in Damascus where I could view them.
This is the kind of thing any savvy Syrian teenager does to see rap videos. I laughed about how easy it was.
But then something taught me about how sophisticated the Syrian censorship and surveillance is: Suddenly the network blocked the port I was using and I could no longer access the banned websites. Here was a customized response to block a specific port in my apartment. Was the action directed at me or does the national firewall recognize and block anything suspicious automatically?
I went to change the port and try to find out. Maybe Syrian surveillance isn't so transparent after all....