In March 2012, the Syrian government banned the free and safely encrypted messaging application WhatsApp from all national networks, primarily to disrupt the rebel opposition’s cellular privacy. Judging from online search trends, the ban isn’t working. It’s doing the opposite of working.
Syrian rebels and journalists in huge numbers are finding new ways to use the messaging service to organize, share news, track government security forces and warn of national army movements. In the past 12 months, WhatsApp, written in Arabic, spiked 1,350 percent in Google searches within Syria, according to Google Trend. Facebook, in second place, spiked 350 percent over the same period.
“WhatsApp is very popular among Syrians, and particularly Syrian opposition activists,” says Tuma, a citizen journalist from border town of Tal Al Shihab. ”Even Free Syrian Army soldiers are using the app, but not all of them.”
The Free Syrian Army, the primary opposition group inside the country, posted a link on its website to download the application. It also included a contact number where it could be reached via WhatsApp.
The government’s block of WhatsApp (primarily used by Syrians on the Android platform but also available in Apple’s App Store) seems to only have inspired Syrians, anti-government and otherwise, to discover new ways of circumventing it. In southern Syria, people are tapping into the Jordanian cellular networks, and in the north, near Aleppo, they are jumping on Turkish ones, a Syrian citizen journalist named Ali tells Vocativ. In other parts of the country it is possible to access WhatsApp using a satellite connection.
According to Ali, recent spikes in WhatsApp users was partly due to Syria’s ban on Skype, another communications app. Although using Skype would be possible with the same loopholes as WhatsApp, The New York Times reported that the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has “developed tools to install malware on computers that allows officials to monitor a user’s activity” specific to Skype.
“WhatsApp is considered safe, free and easy to use,” says Tuma, the citizen journalist. “We can easily share photos and videos using the app.”
WhatsApp has not specified what type of cryptography is used for its service, leaving some wary of how safe it truly is. But according to the company’s website, “WhatsApp communication between your phone and our server is fully encrypted. We do not store your chat history on our servers.”
Syrians were outraged at the initial WhatsApp ban. A Facebook group “Bring WhatsApp Back to Syria” was created and began publicly posting proxy numbers to access the app.
Tom Sanders, a co-founder of Whatsapp Status, a service that monitors the app’s outages and availability, tells Vocativ he was not aware of the app’s popularity in Syria.
“We don’t track Whatsapp usage in Syria, and don’t track Syria in general,” says Sanders.
The Saudi Arabian government announced last week that they might also ban the app if the developers didn’t comply with their requirements for easier monitoring before Ramadan.
UPDATE: This story previously incorrectly attributed Tom Sanders’ employer. Item has been updated to reflect the correction.