WASHINGTON â€” Mohammed Maskatiâ€™s cellphone was his lifeline to fellow human rights activists in strife-torn Bahrain. So when his line went dead in mid-March, he checked with the local phone company. His account, they told him, had been canceled.
Even worse, Maskati said, he discovered that Bahraini authorities used records of his calls, plus texts and emails sent from his phone, as a secret road map to crack down on his network of pro-democracy advocates.
Yet the harassment did not stop when Maskati got a new phone and number. He soon received anonymous death threats. Then, in a predawn raid Saturday, armed men in masks and black uniforms forced their way into his home. They bound and beat him and, in an act of humiliation, shaved half of his head.
â€œThe government is monitoring emails and calls and everything,â€ Maskati, who is president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said in a phone interview from the capital, Manama. â€œThey are especially monitoring those who are doing political reform.â€
Twitter feeds and Facebook pages have accelerated the pace at which protesters have amassed supporters to demand regime change in countries across the Middle East and North Africa. But in a growing number of cases, local intelligence and security agencies have begun tracing those electronic trails to arrest or intimidate protest leaders and supporters.
More than 40 governments now restrict access to the Internet, and many use cyber-tools to spy on political opponents, according to the State Departmentâ€™s annual report on human rights, which was released Friday.
â€œSome censored websites for political reasons,â€ Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters.
â€œAnd in a number of countries, democracy and human rights activists and independent bloggers found their emails hacked or their computers infected with spyware that reported back on their every keystroke. Digital activists have been tortured so they would reveal their passwords and implicate their colleagues.â€
Itâ€™s one reason the State Department is seeking to augment a little-known program to help people in authoritarian regimes protect their online identities, email, cellphones and other private communications from bugging and censors.
Since 2008, the so-called Internet freedom initiative has brought more than 5,000 political activists to more than 100 training sessions in such countries as Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Trainees are taught to use encrypted Internet tunnels, some developed with U.S. government funding, that hide a userâ€™s location and identity.
Attendees also are told how to install and use publicly available encryption software to protect text messages on their cellphones.
The trainers show how government monitors can use the global positioning chip in a cellphone to track the userâ€™s movements. They have promoted software designed to hide the identities of cellphone users and have shown Web surfers how to get around Internet firewalls erected to restrict access to certain websites.
When asked if there are counter-terrorism concerns that these techniques might fall into the wrong hands, officials said the lessons only focus on publicly available technologyâ€”and organized terrorist groups are already familiar with these methods.