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How aid workers are using encrypted communications to stay safe in conflict zones

Often operating in volatile conflict zones, aid workers are frequently turning to encrypted communication services to protect each other

Aid workers in conflict zones are increasingly turning to encrypted communications platforms to protect themselves and their co-workers.

British aid worker Tauqir Sharif, for example, has recently been in the news after it was discovered that the UK government revoked his citizenship in May 2017, leaving him and his family stranded in northern Syria.

Sharif has a long, well-documented history of aid work, from flood relief in Pakistan to being aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship, which sought to break the illegal siege of Gaza in 2010. Despite the danger Sharif faced, he only began using secure communication providers after the revocation of his citizenship.

“My work has always been public and people have always said, ‘It’s dangerous for you’, but I don’t have anything to hide,” said Sharif. “For all the years I’ve been here, I’ve been on social media, I’ve been very open.

“It was only after my citizenship was revoked that I started to become more wary of my security and started using these encrypted platforms.”

According to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, published in January 2017, most research on the use of messaging apps in humanitarian contexts is limited to the Middle East.

It does, however, note that, in this region, humanitarian workers said they had “seen increasing rates of smartphone ownership among refugees and other low-income groups”.

In Syrian refugee camps, for example, the report found that 40% of interviewees had access to a smartphone and that, “while not all had the capability to make immediate calls, many reported paying for data to use applications such as WhatsApp”.

Secure, encrypted communications platforms have therefore been adopted more widely by other aid workers too, and have the added benefit of maintaining the anonymity of the individual.

“Of course, we have to be careful in terms of the way we operate because, as you know, being an aid worker can be dangerous – being in a war zone, people trying to rob you, hold you for ransom, whatever,” said Sharif.

“We try to use as much open source software as possible so we can be secure in our communications. Signal doesn’t hold much information on their servers so whatever is sent is encrypted. Even if they are asked for that information, they don’t have it, so that’s why we use it.

“If I’m ever in a situation where the regime goes on an offensive, I want all of my data to be encrypted – if somebody gets hold of my laptop, if it falls into the wrong hands, I don’t want any of the charities I work with or people like myself to be targeted.”

Pepijn Le Heux, a human rights lawyer and Tor relay operator, said: “Aid workers need to use encryption, especially if they work with people who face persecution or if they face persecution themselves.

“Aid workers should educate themselves so they really understand the threats and the technology. Only then can they make the right decisions to keep themselves and the people they work with safe.”

Sharif also pointed out that many of the staff he works with are Syrian, and many still have families in regime-controlled areas.

“We need to keep their records, their data of who they are and their identification safe. Many of their families are still in regime areas so, for fear of any backlash against them, you have to secure everything on encrypted hard drives, and so on.”

A matter of life or death

Sharif added that for him specifically, given the secrecy surrounding his case, encrypted platforms are important for remaining in contact with his legal team.

“I have to talk to my lawyers in Signal, so that information between us can be secure to a certain extent,” said Sharif.

“These cases are being dealt with in secret courts. The British government believes giving out the information of how they’ve come to this judgement would breach their security, so for us to have secure communication with our legal team is very important.”

While the case was originally reported on by Middle East Eye in November 2017, Sharif could not come forward and speak about the case until his lawyers obtained a court order lifting his anonymity. Sharif, however, was only one of many to have their citizenship revoked in 2017.

“The majority of us were aid workers, journalists and people working in the civilian sector. We were shocked,” he said.

Cerie Bullivant, a spokesperson for Cage, a non-governmental organisation working to challenge the narrative of “suspect communities” and the perceived terrorist threat, added that in volatile zones, using secure means of communication is not only necessary, but could be a matter of life and death.

“This is why we must all be alarmed by the rafts of laws passed under the pretext of the War on Terror that have weakened the legal rights of survivors, and specifically undermined our individual rights to privacy. As if this is not enough, the state has gone to great lengths to demonise those who defend privacy rights.”

Sharif travelled with his wife, a fellow aid worker, to Turkey in 2012, where they would move in and out of Syria. As this became increasingly difficult, they decided to stay in Syria permanently to deliver aid to refugees and the substantial, internally displaced population.

In a precursor to later events, in 2014 Sharif’s then 17-month-old daughter was denied a UK passport.

“We were just pushed around and not given any answer. I called over 50 times with no response, they just kept saying your case has been escalated, and then eventually they told us that my signature was out of the box and that’s why they didn’t give her a passport.”

Fast-forward to May 2017, Sharif himself was told by the British government that he was a potential threat to security, and that they believe he was “aligned to an AQ aligned group” and therefore “not conducive to the public good”.

Assuming AQ means Al-Qaeda, Sharif said: “By their own testament, they don’t believe I’m Isis, they don’t believe I’m AQ, they don’t believe I have engaged with terrorism – they believe I am aligned to a group that’s affiliated to AQ, which is absolutely crazy.

“That’s not even being guilty by association, that’s being guilty by association with a degree of separation.”

Daniel Furner, a lawyer representing Sharif, said: “What troubles me most about these cases is the almost total absence of reasons, or explanation, for stripping a person of their citizenship. It’s hard to think of a more serious step to take, and yet in this case we have about two lines of text explaining why they have taken Mr Sharif’s citizenship away.

“If they would tell us why they think that, we would have some chance to rebut it – but as it is, we are left with nothing. How are we supposed to defend him in those circumstances?”

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