Facebook Prison: Testimonies from Syria

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***The original version of this account was published in Arabic on Rising for Freedom’s website on October 4, 2015.***

Ahmad witnessed many horrors during his year in a Syrian regime prison.  Some of the worst were people being tortured for their Facebook and other online passwords. Many of his fellow prisoners had been arrested because of their mobile phones.  They were stopped at a checkpoint, their phones were seized and their Facebook accounts checked.  If the soldier saw something inappropriate – “liking” a wrong page, for example – they were arrested.  Others had been arrested because they were communicating with mobile phone numbers of deceased opposition activists or Free Syrian Army Fighters.

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Ahmad is not alone in his testimony of Facebook/WhatsApp torture in Syrian prisons. A SalamaTech researcher interviewed another former detainee, “Salwah.” Here are her observations:

“All detainees are asked to surrender their mobile phones and their online account credentials, even if the arrest has nothing to do with their online activities. The authorities go through their accounts, including retrieving deleted files. If anything inappropriate is found, the detainees will be subject to further torture.”

“Many of the people I met in prison were arrested because of a Facebook or WhatsApp conversation. All of the other 22 women and girls in my room were in prison because of their online activities.”

“Many of the people I met in prison were arrested because of a Facebook or WhatsApp conversation. All of the other 22 women and girls in my room were in prison because of their online activities.”

“Really, the Syrian security officers blame the revolution on Facebook, and how Syrians misused it. They are so obsessed with this idea that anyone who carries a mobile phone is suspect. One detective told me: ‘President Assad made a huge mistake when he allowed the internet into our country’.”
“One woman I met was actually loyal to Assad and was in prison by mistake. She was stopped at a checkpoint on her way from Damascus to the suburbs where she lives. The security officer checked her phone and found a message from her sister in Idlib who owns a garment shop. The message said: ‘We have the new goods from Turkey now and it is so good.’ The officer suspected that the message was referring to weapons, so arrested her.”
Ahmad and Salwah’s stories reinforce the centrality of social media in Syria’s war. From the earliest days of the revolution, Facebook and the internet have served as critical information channels for the revolution and survival. Opposition activists see the internet as a continued lifeline for political freedom — a medium where their voices can be heard, where war crimes are documented, and where they can connect with each other across geographic and ideological divides. Average Syrian citizens rely on the internet to know where the bombs are dropping, which checkpoints to avoid, where food may be found, and where their families are. It is in no way surprising that Syrian refugees carry smartphones. They are toolkits for survival.

“Opposition activists see the internet as a continued lifeline for political freedom — a medium where their voices can be heard, where war crimes are documented, and where they can connect with each other across geographic and ideological divides”

But mobile phones and social media area also a frontline in the war. Syrians are captured and killed because of their online activities. They are tortured for passwords because online accounts expose everyone in the victim’s network. This threat is not just from the digitally savvy Assad regime. ISIS and other armed groups also capture and torture Syrians to access their online accounts.
After his release, Ahmad shared his experience in a closed Facebook group – to help his fellow Syrians avoid a similar fate. Here is Ahmad’s advice:

  • Never call numbers you know belong to activists who are deceased. Their numbers are all under direct regime surveillance.
  • Never use text messaging for your sensitive communication. Use only audio.
  • Delete all your chat history on WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype.
  • Use special programs that delete all your files permanently – including related folders.
  • Never post anything on Facebook that reveals your real identity.

 

 

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SalamaTech

The SalamaTech Project builds the capacity of Syrian civil society to communicate safely online.

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