6 April, 2022
Digital space: the frontier of civic repression and activism
International Human Rights Programme / Partner story
Photo from Shutterstock.
Alaa Al-Siddiq, a 33-year-old human rights activist from the United Arab Emirates, was subject to relentless and insidious digital surveillance. Her phone was hacked using Pegasus spyware. Produced by NSO Group, a commercial spyware company, it had access to her texts, photos, and emails, rendering the phone an external listening device.
Alaa’s surveillance was investigated and exposed by Oak partner Citizen Lab, a team of forensic technology researchers at the University of Toronto. It is at the forefront of researching and documenting global surveillance, censorship, and information controls that impact human rights, and the openness and security of the internet.
Citizen Lab identified 45 countries where Pegasus operators conducted surveillance operations for government and corporate clients. The NSO group insists that its product is only deployed lawfully in the battle against terrorism or serious criminal activity. However, Alaa was targeted because of her work exposing human rights violations in the Gulf region. Her surveillance and harassment formed part of a broader tactic to stifle civic activism and, in turn, muzzle dissent. Spyware like Pegasus has allowed some governments to reach across borders to threaten civic activists.
Professor Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with spyware companies for years. His team has used innovative research techniques to expose how hundreds of journalists, human rights activists, and senior government officials have been targeted. “Even though software typically can’t kill people directly in the way that bullets can, the end result is often the same,” says Ron. “Until steps are taken to rein in mercenary commercial spyware, repressive governments will continue to exploit products like Pegasus to undermine the work of those who hold power to account.” Encouragingly, Citizen Lab has made progress.
Together with Citizen Lab, Access Now, an organisation that works to defend the rights of digital users at risk around the world, helped to ensure that the US Government added the NSO Group to a list of companies sanctioned for malicious cyber activities. “This is a huge win,” says Natalia Krapiva, the tech legal counsel at Access Now. “NSO Group says that its spyware technologies are all about protecting public safety and national security. But now we have the US saying that these companies are violating not only human rights but also US national security through their assaults on democracy.” The US blacklisting will have an immediate impact, including reducing investment in spyware and cutting NSO off from critical technical supplies.
But digital surveillance is not the only means by which civic activism can be curtailed.
Access Now also coordinates the #KeepItOn Coalition, which monitors internet shutdowns. Internet shutdowns can be anything from a full shutdown or blackouts that cut off access to the entire web within a given region, to more targeted partial shutdowns that impact specific services, like popular social media and messaging apps. In 2020 alone, Access Now documented 155 internet shutdowns in 29 countries. This year, it documented internet blackouts during the presidential elections in Uganda, nationwide protests in India, and the military coup in Myanmar. Shutdowns are generally conducted under the pretext of ‘protecting national security’ or ‘preventing the spread of misinformation’, when often, they are a means of curbing dissent. Access Now brings much needed international attention to the issue and helps to inform policy makers.
Through its 24/7 helpline, Access Now also provides a first line of defence. This is a free-of-charge resource for civil society around the world. It offers real-time, direct technical assistance and advice to civil society groups and activists, media organisations, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders. It equips civil society actors with the tools and knowledge to work around repressive digital practices. To date, its helpline, which operates 24/7 and in nine languages, has responded to 10,000 requests for assistance.
Sadly, human rights defender Alaa Al-Siddiq passed away in a tragic road accident in 2021 near Oxford in the United Kingdom. “We understand that the surveillance campaign was a source of anguish and concern during the last year of Alaa’s life,” says Adrian Arena, director of Oak’s International Human Rights Programme. “It is clear from her experience and those of other human right defenders that their protection and privacy is of crucial importance.”
Keeping civil society safe, connected, and empowered is essential to protecting human rights and democracy. We are pleased to support civil society to respond to the inherent risks (and opportunities) posed by the online space. Given that many of our partners work in high-risk contexts, we are dedicated to ensuring that we provide these partners with a duty of care. To this end, we are happy to support the work of our partners mentioned above, who seek to build a more secure, free, and open digital future, not just for civic activists, but for everyone.
To learn more about Citizen Lab or Acesss Now, you can find more information on their websites: citizenlab.ca and accessnow.org. You can also find out more about the work of our International Human Rights Programme by clicking here.