NEWS

Don't Touch that Dial: Considerations When Using Satphones in Conflict Zones

By Carlton Purvis

Satellite phones can be used in areas where infrastructure doesn’t support traditional cell phone networks, like conflict zones or remote areas, but they also expose their users to risk of being targeted by hostile forces or governments.

Journalism legend Marie Colvin and reporter Rémi Ochlik were killed by Syrian shelling last month while reporting from a makeshift press center in the embattled neighborhood of Homs. Two other journalists were wounded. Syrian forces targeted the press center after pinpointing its location by triangulating signals from satphones being used by the journalists, according to media reports.

Three weeks after Colvin’s death, Small World News, an Oregon-based nonprofit that provides media training for conflict areas, produced a training guide for safe use of satellite phones in conflict areas. The 43-page guide explains how satphones work, risks of use, and precautions users can take. It was produced “with a specific slant toward phone use by activists and citizen journalists inside Syria,” but future editions will address other use situations and locations, according to the Small World News Web site. Private security companies and disaster response agencies rely on the technology as well.

“This guide will assist you to maintain a low profile and improve your chances to evade detection and monitoring from the authorities,” says Small World News.

The first risk noted by the guide is confiscation. In the event a satphone is confiscated, a person’s call log, phone book, and sent folder become a valuable cache of information. It allows the confiscator to track a person’s phone activity without having access to actual transmissions. Deleting this information regularly is not a complete fail-safe, the guide notes, but it would make access harder for someone trying to extract that data from the phone. “It may be suspicious to have an empty call log, but [it] will have less impact on your colleagues,” the guide states.

Making calls on a satphone requires a clear view of the sky. Satphone users can lessen the chance of having a phone confiscated by disguising their use. Using a headset with a satphone will make it look like a person is using the local cellular network instead of a satellite call, the guide states. A Bluetooth headset lets a person use a phone while keeping it hidden in an open bag or behind bushes.

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