Interview: Meet the person protecting human rights activists amid mass surveillance

6 min read
Jamie

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Mohammed Al-Maskati

Front Line Defenders’s Mohammed Al-Maskati has spent most of his life fighting for human rights in Bahrain and the Middle East. But in recent years, human rights activists have increasingly faced the new challenge of mass government surveillance. This has prompted Al-Maskati to focus on protecting activists by providing them with tools—such as VPNs—and educational resources that would help them operate online with safety and anonymity.

This year, he received AccessNow’s Human Rights Heroes Award for his efforts in providing digital security training to human rights defenders and vulnerable groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa, partly through the website digital-protection.tech.

We spoke with Al-Maskati about his formative years as a human rights activist in Bahrain, the risks that come with defending human rights, and how his work equips other defenders with the knowledge to protect themselves from oppressive regimes in the digital age.

 

How did you get into human rights activism?

The main turning point for me was when I started working with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights when I was 15. Seeing what was happening in Bahrain and its human rights history got me to be more active at the center. In 2005, when I was 18, I started my own organization called Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), and from that time onward I was very active on the ground.

At BYSHR we wanted to do more than document the human rights violations, so we went to villages to educate people on human rights and how to document and expose these violations themselves. We organized demonstrations and protests, and participated in conferences outside of Bahrain to shed light on the human-rights situation.

Things escalated in 2011, and we became very active in leading most of the protests during the Bahraini revolution and documenting everything happening. We also essentially became the voice on the human-rights situation in Bahrain for the international media. We were constantly writing and sending out newsletters to the media, UN staff, and human rights organizations, and we would be sending these out every three hours or so, with information about what’s happening on the ground and in each village, and how many casualties there were. We turned into this hub for all this information.

What was the most challenging part of your work that year? 

The hardest thing we had to do was to fact-check all of the information coming from the villages.

We received a lot of information from supporters in the villages—hundreds of messages, emails, and Facebook messages. So fact-checking it was incredibly important. We had to call them by phone to check to see if so-and-so was injured, what exactly happened and when, and whether they had pictures, video. All this information had to be checked.

We had people working 24/7 to complete all this information, trying to connect with the people that we knew in the area. Some of the areas we couldn’t even go to because the police had surrounded the areas, so we collected as much information as we could.

How has the landscape changed in Bahrain? What are the biggest threats to human rights in Bahrain and the Gulf at large right now?

The situation is changing but not entirely in our favor. To be sure, people are significantly more educated now on what human rights violations are, and what UN mechanisms are available to them.

But the main risk now is the digital side of the crackdown. Before, the government needed to monitor someone physically with a camera. Now they can just monitor anyone using their surveillance tools. It’s more aggressive because they need less manpower, have many digital tools at their disposal, and can monitor thousands of people at a time.

Since 2011, the information required to track human rights defenders and political activists has been coming from their own devices, and from their families’ and colleagues’ devices. It’s not coming from traditional security intelligence alone. This is the digital era, and it’s a very risky era for everyone.

You’ve been arrested before for your work in documenting human rights violations in Bahrain. How big of a risk is that for you now?

My work now focuses not only on Bahrain but also on many other countries, which has increased this risk for me. I cannot visit some of the countries because I’m afraid to visit them—countries that have told me that I am not allowed to visit. So instead I communicate with the human rights defenders there and share manuals with them.

The important thing for me is spreading knowledge, rather than directly going head-to-head with the government. That doesn’t stop some of these countries from seeing my efforts as a threat though.

How does the new reality of mass surveillance affect the work of human rights defenders? How are you helping them stay a step ahead?

The risk is different for human rights defenders; they’re at a greater risk of being targeted.

When reaching out to human rights defenders, we try to provide free tools, such as VPNs and manuals on overcoming surveillance. We try to partner with companies that can help protect human rights organisations.

Worryingly, some human rights defenders use tools that aren’t trusted, and that’s also a risk that we try to mitigate. These tools and the companies behind them cooperate with the government and state actors, putting these defenders at risk.

Last year you launched digital-protection.tech, a website that educates human rights activists on how to protect themselves online. How did it come about?

We had been doing a lot of training, but there were limitations—the manuals we were using were not only complicated and outdated, but a lot of them were also not written in Arabic.

I also don’t want to put these people at risk with hard copies or PDFs of the manuals if the government comes to investigate them. This is one worry. Another was that if I wanted to update the manuals, or if there was a software change and I wanted to update that quickly, I couldn’t do that with a PDF.

With the website, I decided not to use PDFs and uploaded the manuals on the site directly instead, so I can update the information easily, and activists can see the information without downloading it. The manuals are now in Arabic, so they don’t have to rely on machine translation like Google Translate.

Most important is these manuals are to the point—this is the screenshot, this is what you want to do, this is the result. It doesn’t take much to explain what to do. Human rights defenders don’t have time to read all that, so more pictures and more screenshots makes it easier to reach what you want that way.

We started with making simple Arabic manuals on how to activate two-factor authentication on several platforms, using screenshots and basic instructions. Each manual takes approximately two to three months to complete, and we update the manuals regularly. Right now I’m in the middle of updating about a dozen manuals on our website.

What’s next for the website?

We’re currently translating the site into Kurdish. I went to Kurdistan on one of my missions, and the people I met there had some difficulty understanding the Arabic as it’s not their first language. So we’re now translating it so that the Kurds can understand it better. I’m also working on manuals on how to use Facebook without giving your information away.

Anything else you’re working on?

I’m mostly working with Front Line Defenders on supporting human rights defenders through training, rapid responses, and basically anything that helps get the word out for them.

Follow Mohammed Al-Maskati and Front Line Defenders for more updates on their fight for human rights, and the activists who risk their lives to hold oppressive regimes accountable.

 

ExpressVPN is proud to be supporting Front Line Defenders in their work to provide human rights activists a private and secure VPN.

 

Jamie writes about current issues concerning digital privacy and security and is known to interview leading figures in tech. He also keeps an eye on changes in government censorship and surveillance.