In an increasingly interconnected world and with the rise of massive social media corporations and “big data” analytics, digital privacy and data security have never been more important.
While in many advanced democratic societies the debate often revolves around the citizen’s right to a private space, in countries such as Iraq the lack of privacy can have deadlier repercussions and so demonstrators are increasingly adopting novel means of keeping their identities away from the prying eyes of security forces and powerful Shia militias.
Since the US-led invasion and occupation of the country in 2003, Iraq has had a long history of civil unrest and protest movements. Up until 2013, these were largely led by the Sunni Arab minority that felt marginalised by the post-2003 order.
Their demonstrations came to a violent end in 2013 when former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the army to forcibly disperse protest camp sites in Ramadi and other cities, a move an Iraqi parliamentary probe later blamed for the rise of the armed group ISIL (ISIS) in Mosul.
Since ISIL’s defeat in 2017, tensions between state and society simmered until exploding in October 2019, this time in Iraq’s Shia heartlands – traditionally the bastion of electoral support for the Shia-dominated political system.
Complaining of corruption, a lack of economic security, and accusing Iraq’s political elites of being beholden to foreign powers, particularly Iran, mostly Shia Arabs took to the streets of the capital Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriya, and other main population centres throughout central and southern Iraq.
The federal authorities’ response was to once more resort to violence, backed extensively by Shia militias which deployed snipers on rooftops to pick off demonstrators.
“There are so many examples of the state’s alliance with the militias,” Sara, who attended the protests in Baghdad, told Al Jazeera, asking that her real name not be used for her own security.
“Their alliance was to protect a system that works for Iran and its clients in Iraq, not the Iraqi people who suffer under their corrupt rule,” she said. “They have a long history of violence against the Iraqi people.”
Hacking activists for arrests
In a two-pronged offensive against the demonstrators and the international media organisations reporting on their protests, the government throttled social media sites used to organise the demonstrations and then cut internet access across much of the country to prevent both professional and citizen journalists from reporting on abuses.
However, even after internet services were restored, activists faced a series of cyberattacks that led to arrests and the disruption of protests.
“To begin with, we used apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, and Twitter to organise marches and publicise what was happening,” an unemployed software developer who participated in protests in Baghdad in 2019 and 2020 told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“But we soon discovered that a lot of these apps had been compromised … by victims being tricked [into installing] fake apps that downloaded messages straight off phones. We would turn up to an area to hold a protest and find masked militias waiting for us with knives and clubs,” he said.
While this suggests both the Iraqi security forces and militias have greatly expanded their cybersecurity capabilities, experts say the hacking expertise could be imported from neighbouring Iran.
“Certainly, the electronic armies of the Iranian-backed militias are getting support from Iranian experience and expertise in electronic warfare,” Watheq al-Sadoon, Iraq expert at Turkish think tank ORSAM said, referring to the specialist cyberunits embedded within most militia and state security entities.
“The electronic armies have managed to penetrate the phones and social media accounts of some activists,” al-Sadoon added. “This allowed the militias to spy on activists and send threats to them.”
Evidence of Iran’s burgeoning cyber-warfare capabilities has recently been uncovered.
In September, The New York Times reported on a sophisticated Iranian hacking programme that specifically targeted dissidents. Al-Sadoon suggested this could have easily and cheaply been exported to Iran’s clients in Iraq.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other rights monitors, activists have been routinely targeted for arrests and enforced disappearances.
Despite Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s promises to locate those who had been forcibly disappeared, HRW described his efforts as a “do-nothing mechanism”.
Some high-profile dissidents have even been targeted for assassination.
On Wednesday, the father of a missing anti-government activist, Jasb Hattab Aboud, was killed after he waged a public campaign trying to bring to account a militia suspected of abducting his son.
Last December, Salah al-Iraqi was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Baghdad’s al-Jadida area.
In August, Reham Yacoub, a medical doctor and well-known activist who had been key to the protest movement in Basra and was a staunch women’s rights activist, was similarly gunned down by masked assailants. She had been the subject of repeated death threats because of her activism.
In all instances, no arrests have been made with suspicions falling on the Shia armed groups who control the areas in which the killings happened.
In the wake of al-Iraqi’s murder, rights groups, including Amnesty International and HRW, said the authorities’ “failure” to bring the perpetrators to justice was “perpetuating and further entrenching decades of impunity that have left brave individuals without the most basic protection”.
Technological innovation to protect activists
With almost 600 protesters killed and thousands more wounded, arrested, or else victims of enforced disappearances, Iraqi civil society has had to adapt in order to survive, and has turned to technological innovation for protection.
The unemployed software developer said he had increasingly been training activists on how to use anonymisation technologies to protect them from infiltration, when demonstrations restart after the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control.
One of the main technologies relied on are virtual private networks, or VPNs.
“There are now new technologies available that give us an additional layer of security, such as decentralised VPNs. We’ve had to rely on these as there have been major security breaches on conventional VPN services and we cannot guarantee our data is not being shared,” said the software developer.
He referred to NordVPN, one of the world’s largest privately-owned VPNs, which was hacked twice in late 2019 and compromised the security and privacy of its users. Instead, Iraqi activists are increasingly relying on novel VPNs such as Sentinel, a decentralised VPN, or dVPN.
Srinivas Baride, chief technology officer of Exidio, which developed the Sentinel technology, told Al Jazeera his company’s technology was specifically designed to “solve the problem of centralised control over users’ data”, a risk all customers of traditional centralised VPNs face.
“Centralised VPNs operate under a central authority, usually a corporation, that controls and manages all the information related to the users,” Baride said. “But in our dVPN protocol, everything is decentralised … The nodes are hosted by individuals from anywhere across the globe.”
By having an open-source code that anyone can access and by relying on a global network of individual hosts, Baride said, dVPNs prevent governments from blocking the server and IP addresses of known VPNs that have largely static servers.
“Of course, there is nothing stopping governments simply unplugging the internet,” Baride concluded.
However, as technologies such as Elon Musk’s ambitious Starlink project – which aims to beam the internet to remote areas across the globe via satellites – gains pace, the software developer suggests this could be combined with dVPNs to maintain constant communication.
“We will be able to continue to talk to one another, to organise, and to show the outside world what is happening to us,” he said.
“Unless they shoot down these internet-providing satellites, they will never be able to silence our hopes for democracy and accountability again. That is our dream.”