Earthquake Deepens People’s Digital Vulnerability
In the wake of earthquakes ravaging Turkey and northern Syria, another vulnerability has quietly but surely deepened. Local members of the SalamaTech team are helping people protect themselves from follow-on digital harms.
This month’s magnitude-7.8 quake and aftershocks have taken nearly 50,000 souls. Homes, buildings and infrastructure lie in ruins. Millions of people are seeking shelter in camps, emergency facilities and temporary structures. The unthinkable scale of tomorrow’s rebuilding challenge is exceeded only by today’s humanitarian crisis. In northern Syria alone, millions need food, medical help, better shelter, alternatives to shattered schools, and the list goes on. And on that list, a very 21st century need: protection from surging digital harms.
Grasping the urgency here means recognizing the role that digital technology has come to play for Syrians through a decade of war. Mobile devices, especially, are a crucial link to scattered family, supportive communities, humanitarian help, vital information and more. But this lifeline also comes with a new world of digital threats—and that’s why SalamaTech formed in 2012, with Foundation support. Since then, this self-organizing team of community workers has been helping Syrians protect themselves from hackers, blackmailers and a whole host of bad actors.
At the Foundation, we’re hearing from SalamaTech team members on the ground. Many saw their own homes crumble; some have lost family members under the rubble. But still, they have been joining searches for survivors and providing frontline assistance in and around their communities. And as time passes, they’ve found themselves back to promoting digital safety as well—as cyber criminals move in to exploit people at their most vulnerable.
Digital harms: what we’re hearing
In one of many cases this week, team members successfully pressed Meta to suspend a Facebook account used by a blackmailer. He had hacked a woman’s phone, stolen private photos featuring her with no hijab, and threatened to post them online. In fact, he’d already started posting samples on a local buy-sell Facebook group before losing his account. While he may reappear, blackmailers often vanish if they fear they’ve been exposed. That’s been the team’s experience helping countless women through cases like this.
A big concern right now is the sheer vulnerability of mobile devices. While many people are still linking into mobile networks, electricity for charging is scarce. So people are seeking out any power sources that exist in public spaces. And sometimes they’re leaving devices untended—either charging, or holding a place in a queue—to focus on other survival challenges. Team members have seen strangers volunteering to watch over lineups of phones.
When devices vanish, are they feeding a surging black market? No doubt. Are hackers sometimes installing backdoors first, giving them remote access to personal data? No doubt. The team has also spotted strangers furtively flipping through phones at charging stations. Were they looking for weak passcodes, or using spotters to watch people entering their own? Are they installing malware on the spot, or hijacking accounts? One team member said she worries a wave of hacked devices is spreading among ordinary people, ready to be used for theft and blackmail after the dust settles.
There’s also been a surge of online disinformation. Scammers are promoting sites that promise to help people find missing loved ones—or food, or better shelter—which turn out to be malware-dropping phishes. On social media, fake news about the aftermath stokes sectarian division and fears about humanitarian actors. Some posters are fuelling panic with warnings about potential floods and even tsunamis. All are exploiting the basic reality that need, fear and desperation can lower anyone’s critical guard.
Learning from crisis
Amid crisis, SalamaTech team members are finding ways to help people protect themselves. Some are holding impromptu digital safety sessions in tent encampments. Others are working together to publish digital safety alerts and guidance on social media. In these conditions, simple steps can go a very long way. Like learning to protect a device with a strong password. Or how to recognize phishing attempts and malignant disinformation.
This week, one SalamaTech team member said that, in two weeks, she’s gained a lifetime’s worth of insight. Insight into people’s resilience in the face of crisis (in this case, layered on years of crisis). Reassurance about the predominance of empathy and community over hate and aggression. And lessons that may forever change her approach to helping people build their digital resilience.
What are those lessons? Can we incorporate them in our work globally? We know this is not the time to press our allies in the field. That moment will come soon enough. For now, in northern Syria, the life-saving and resilience-building work continues. And here at the Foundation, we are honoured to have found ways to support this work.