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Sudan’s Proxy War

As the Sudanese government cracks down on an ongoing uprising, hackers, bloggers and security forces have opened up a second front: the Internet.

by Florian Cornu On July 27, 2012

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As Egyptian journalist Shaimaa Adel, imprisoned for three weeks for covering the Sudanese rebellion, is released, the protest movement started in Khartoum continues. In a climate of mass arrests, riots occur daily and web access is becoming a key issue for the future of the movement.

On June 16 last, university students in the capital city began to protest against the announcement of austerity measures, involving yet another rise in the price of food and transport. Though immediately repressed, the protests spread like wildfire to other universities in the country, before taking hold at different levels of Sudanese society.

Though initially motivated by the announcement of the austerity plan, the protests quickly turned into a popular movement, demanding an end to the regime of President Omar al-Bashir.

Since the start of the uprising, control of information has played a key role in the power struggle.  As areas of discontent multiply, Bashir’s regime has done all it can to cut off communication between the protestors, and keep control of the media. The arrest of journalists and bloggers, censorship of newspapers before publication and web restrictions: all means used by the authorities to break the demonstrators’ momentum.

The Revolutionary Matrix

Despite the absence of a widespread Internet infrastructure in Sudan (only 10% of the population have access to it, while 50% own a mobile phone), the web is crucial to circumventing censorship and organising demonstrations.

This is primarily thanks to a few activist sites like Girifna or Sudan Change Now, who regularly distribute information about the daily riots and demonstrations. Sudan Change Now has even set up an interactive map outlining the daily locations of rioting, arrests, violence or media coverage of various uprisings. While the number of reports released in recent days is experiencing a slowdown, it’s difficult to know if there has been a problem with the safety of sources, or a simple drop in the number of accounts.

Several blogs, including Sudan Revolts, are also trying to fight against government misinformation, using crowdsourcing to gather, among other things, the testimony of those arrested. As explained by its directors.

SudanRevolts is about the people’s fight for change in Sudan.  We intend for this to act as a hub for the information and stories of our revolution […] This is a site for the people, by the people, so please send us your links, ideas, photos and stories — anything you think may be relevant and worth sharing.

There are also social networks, which constitute the main “public square” of the movement. Most of the information, photos and videos pass through the hashtag #Sudanrevolts on Twitter and Facebook and give accounts of arrests but also allow for messages of support from around the world to be aggregated.

According to the site Uncut, access to information is particularly challenging for activists who don’t use these media, because the National Telecommunications Office blocks many anti-government websites and online journalism. This is the case with the Hurriyat and Al-Rakoba websites, which are inaccessible from Sudan, except via proxies.

An overall slowdown in the speed of Internet connections also complicates communication campaigns and calls for demonstrations. Moreover, the forces of the National Security Service (the Sudanese police) almost always confiscate communication devices during arrests (cell phones, computers, photographic equipment or cameras) in order to prevent evidence of repression being disseminated.

Add to this the presence of Sudanese authorities on the web, whose use requires more and more precautions. Journalist Alan Boswell, a Sudan expert, explained this shortly after a series of riots in January 2011.

Instead of simply shutting off access to the Internet or cutting off cellphone texting, as other regimes did, the Sudanese security services embraced those tools. They even declared “cyber-jihad” against anti-regime organisers.  Pro-government agents infiltrated anti-government sites, spreading disinformation and looking to triangulate the identities of the chief organisers. They’d barrage Facebook pages with pornography, then report the pages to Facebook for violating the rules.

Contacted recently by the European Journalism Centre, the activist Rawa Sadiq (not their real name) claimed that the Sudanese Police Force showed many arrested protesters their own tweets, proof that the authorities are monitoring Twitter. Members of the group Girifna were also the target of arrests at their homes, like the citizen journalist Mohammad Usamah (@simsimt) or the blogger and human rights activist Mimz, (@MimzicalMim), who has since been released.

Hacktivism against censorship

One of the challenges of the responding to this lies in the technical circumvention of censorship. And at this level, practices seem to be developing quickly, through mobilisation by certain bloggers and hacker collectives.

Recently, an American observer explained on the Liberation Tech mailing list that the numbers using UltraSurf – a controversial proxy that allows the user to anonymously bypass censorship – had exploded in just a few days in Sudan. It remains to be seen, however, if this version of the  software is sound, unlike the one widely circulated in Syria.

Many bloggers are also attempting to find out how to protect themselves on the web and what precautions to take on social networks. This is the case of Yousif Al-Mahdi, in a July 4 blog post on the protection of public data.

According to an article on the website of the activists Girifna, a group calling itself Anonymous attacked Sudanese government sites in response to the regime’s propaganda. The video below was posted a few days after the start of the riots.

Finally, in order to provide activists the means to circumvent censorship and tracking, the hackers network Telecomix has sent out a note explaining how to connect to the web in the face of cuts and censorship.

As Cantor – a member of Telecomix – explained to us, the web seems to be accessible but many testimonies indicate that connections are very slow, as if Sudanese ISPs were strangling the Internet. According to him, there are many precautions to be taken.

We initially sent out modem numbers that could be called by people who want access to a connection. And in terms of anonymity, we recommend using Tor through proxies. That ensures good encryption, anonymous surfing and for now it seems to be working well. We also recommend not using mobile or satellite phones because the Sudanese police intercept those communications, using modern interception tools licensed by ISPs.

For more information, visit GlobalVoices which regularly publishes updates on the evolution of the rebellion.
Image credits: Screenshot, student demonstration at Sudan University of Science and Technology via Iamsudanes.  Cover photo by dustball, remixed by Owni.eu (CC-BY-NC)

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