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Cyber Jihadist Unit monitors Sudan’s online communication

December 10 - 2014 WASHINGTON

Since May 2013, Sudan experienced a tightening of press freedom, detentions of activists and political opposition leaders, and the shutdown of major civil society organisations.

Government repression intensified toward the end of 2013, with the authorities responded violently to break up the September protests, in addition to shutting down all internet services for nearly 24 hours for the first time in Sudan, the American organisation Freedom House states in its “Freedom on the Net” report on Sudan, covering the period between May 2013 and May 2014.

The authorities increased its restrictions on internet freedom through various tactics during the coverage period. Journalists and civil society groups were subject to an increasing degree of harassment, extralegal violence, and hacking attacks, the report notes.

The National Intelligence and Security Service’s Cyber Jihadist Unit “proactively monitors content posted on blogs, social media websites, and online newspaper forums. The Unit also infiltrates online discussions in an effort to ascertain information about cyber-dissidents and spread of misinformation”. It also frequently hacks websites and personal email and social media accounts of activists.

Social media

The Sudanese government openly acknowledges blocking and filtering websites that it considers “immoral” and “blasphemous”. Social media platforms are not blocked in Sudan, though access to Facebook and YouTube was reportedly very slow or virtually inaccessible to many users during and after the September 2013 wave of protests.

“Meanwhile, since 2008, YouTube and the popular Sudanese forum and news website Sudanese Online have been sporadically blocked for various periods for content perceived as too sensitive by the regime, such as articles on the war in Darfur for instance.”

Economic sanctions

The economic sanctions imposed by the US government against the Khartoum regime since 1997 “have been a significant hindrance to users’ access to various ICTs and new media tools”. The sanctions “block access to original software made by American companies, effectively limiting free access to knowledge on the internet. For example, important software such as anti-virus suites, e-document readers, and rich-content multimedia applications are blocked and inaccessible for users to download,” the report reads.

Yet, according to recent research, Sudan has acquired high-tech surveillance equipment. “In June 2013, Citizen Lab traced the US-based Blue Coat Systems—which manufactures devices that can be used to monitor network traffic and filter content—to three networks inside Sudan. [..] Blue Coat Systems claimed that the devices reached embargoed countries without their knowledge.”

Legal measures

In response to the growth of online publications that are critical of the ruling party, the Sudanese government has stated intentions to enact legal measures to restrict content regarded as “a threat to national and social security.”

According to the media secretary of the ruling National Congress Party, Yasar Yousef Ibrahim in a July 2013 interview, such “threats” encompass not only religiously immoral content, but also opposition publications and political criticism. To combat the perceived threats, the secretary advocated for a law to govern electronic media “that grants authorities the right to block websites when they violate agreed upon limitations”.

“Sudan has a host of restrictive laws that seeks to limit internet freedom,” Freedom House explains. “For example, the Informatics Offences (Combating) Act (known as the IT Crime Act, or electronic crimes law), criminalises the establishment of websites that criticise the government or publish defamatory material and content that disturbs public morality or public order. Violations involve fines and prison sentences between two to five years.”

Counter attacks

In response to increasing technical attacks against activists, a group called AnonSudan in September 2013 hacked several government websites, including the government’s main site, the presidency’s site, and a number of ministerial sites. The group proudly announced on Twitter that it had taken down 149 websites affiliated with the government, the report added.

File photo by Save The Internet

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