Nick Turse

On Monday night, Colvin appeared on CNN, telling Anderson Cooper that “the Syrian army is shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.” Responding to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s statement that he was not targeting civilians in the barrage of rocketfire raining on Homs, Colvin accused the regime of “murder” and said: “There are no military targets here…It’s a complete and utter lie that they are only going after terrorists.”  A few hours later, she was dead.

The Telegraph quoted Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based Liberationnewspaper who was with Colvin in Homs last week as saying: “The Syrian army issued orders to ‘kill any journalist that set foot on Syrian soil’” and that the Syrian authorities were likely watching the CNN broadcast.  The Telegraph then described how “[r]eporters working in Homs, which has been under siege since February 4, had become concerned in recent days that Syrian forces had ‘locked on’ to their satellite phone signals and attacked the buildings from which they were coming” (emphasis ours).

At this point, we don’t know how Colvin and Ochlik were located, but based on the various reports, it is possible that they were located using surveillance technology that tracked their satellite phones.

There are a few different ways by which satellite phones can be tracked.  The first—and easiest for a government actor—would be to simply ask or pressure a company to hand over user data.  This is not beyond the realm of possibility (readers might recall an incident in which Yahoo handed over information about a Chinese dissident to his government, resulting in a ten year prison term), but is just one of several methods.

Satellite phones can also be tracked by technical means and there is ample technology already on the market for doing so.  For example, this portable Thuraya monitoring system by Polish company TS2, which also counts several US government agencies as clients; these systems for monitoring Thuraya and Iridium phones, created by Singaporean company Toplink Pacific; or this satellite phone tracking technology from UK based Delma MMS.

 Authorities can find the position of a satellite phone using manual triangulation, but in order to track a phone in this manner, the individual would need to be relatively close by. Nowadays, however, most satellite phones utilize GPS, making them even easier to track using products widely available on the market such as those mentioned above.  Some of these products allow not only for GPS tracking, but also for interception of voice and text communications and other information.

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