US must remedy NSA’s 2012 Syrian internet shutdown

In a recent interview, former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the Syrian government was not to blame for a nationwide internet blackout on Nov. 29, 2012, the NSA was.

At the time, major news outlets and internet monitoring groups blamed Syrian officials for the move. Citing these outlets in our blog, we recalled that Syrian government officials had previously shut down internet and mobile service in targeted, temporary sieges around the country with the help of service providers.

In this case, however, it turns out that the Syrian government was not to blame. Rather, the NSA caused the disruption by destroying a key router connecting the country to international networks.

According to Snowden, the NSA’s aim was to spy on all Syrians. In the course of attempting to hack into the router for surveillance purposes, the NSA broke the equipment; rather than violating privacy, the NSA directly violated international law and policy on freedom of expression. Syrians lost the ability to communicate during a time when users at risk most needed access to accurate information, open media, and social networks.

Time for Remedy

The U.S. is bound by international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), that bars the government from violating free expression rights at home and abroad. In 2012, Access wrote, “Only through international condemnation and real consequences against officials, including criminal proceedings against those ordering the unlawful shutdowns, will other governments and telecoms heed the message of Article 19 of the ICCPR: all people have the right to seek, receive, and impart information regardless of frontiers.”

Access repeats this call for international condemnation and an immediate criminal investigation into those responsible for the Syrian shutdown. Now, we know who to blame, U.S. government officials.

As to the U.S. policies that enabled this disastrous error, this news must fuel the call for deep reform of foreign surveillance practices — chiefly Executive Order 12333. With this order, initially passed under President Ronald Reagan, the Executive branch of the U.S. government essentially authorized its intelligences services to spy on those abroad. Access is working with our partners to demand that President Obama reform this broad, unlawful order expeditiously.