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Expert Warns of Tech Aiding Oppression

  • Ron Deibert of Toronto-based Citizen Lab speaks at Dartmouth College on "Spyware, Big Brother & How To Sleep At Night" on May 1, 2017. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)



Valley News Correspondent
Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Hanover — One of Canada’s leading cyber sleuths told a Dartmouth audience on Monday that cyberattacks by authoritarian governments against their own citizens — primarily “civil society” members such as human rights advocates, journalists, lawyers — pose a growing threat globally.

“I am alarmed by conditions ripe for an epidemic … when democracy (around the world) is in retreat and authoritarianism is resurgent,” said Ronald Deibert, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and director of the school’s Citizen Lab.

Founded in 2001, Citizen Lab focuses on human rights violations and is home for a small, interdisciplinary group that studies how governments and corporations use technology to censor, hack and spy.

“The capacity to connect (the world) has outpaced our ability to secure (internet) systems,” Deibert said. “There is a lack of basic, effective security policies, lots of misinformation … low internet capability and insecure devices, especially in the developing world. ... We used to think the internet would empower us, but now we are seeing the opposite. And a culture of paranoia seems to be spreading.”

Deibert, a slight, middle-aged man with a graying goatee, explained that “we live in a world in which our choices and decisions are increasingly determined by algorithms buried in the applications (computers, smartphones) we use. What websites we visit, with whom we communicate, and what we say and do online are all increasingly determined by these code-based rules.”

He said that the Citizen Lab is focusing research on two of China’s largest social media applications, WeChat and Sina Weibo, which have almost a billion users a month, making them among the largest in the world. “We are trying to understand how the censorship of discussions works about the so-called ‘709 Crackdown,’ ” Deibert said

This refers to the nationwide targeting by Chinese police of nearly 250 human rights lawyers, activists and others believed to have been associated with two prominent lawyers who “disappeared” on July 9, 2015, thus 709.

“The 709 crackdown is considered one of the harshest repressions on civil society in China,” Deibert explained. “Our research shows that certain combinations of keywords, when sent together in a message, are censored. When sent alone, they are not.” More information about this aspect of the Lab’s research can be found at Deibert’s blog — deibert.citizenlab.org

Deibert said his team also helped expose spyware on the phone of a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates and a prominent Mexican journalist last August. The spyware was traced to an Israeli cyberarms dealer, NSO group, that sells digital spy tools to governments and has contacts with multiple agencies inside Mexico, according to company emails leaked to the New York Times. The spyware was being used to discredit two prominent Mexican activists who were vocal proponents of a 2014 soda tax to combat childhood obesity.

To combat the “epidemic,” Deibert suggested action on several fronts: More coordination by entities like Citizen Lab and others around the world to “expose these abuses”; stronger support from private industry as well as universities to help protect (internet) users; greater efforts to inform the public about the problem; and improved criminal and civil legislation.

“Longer term, cyberspace needs to be rethought as a global commons with government support and regulation,” he said.

Almost 100 people attended the talk in Filene Auditorium.

In an interview before the talk, Deibert, who comes from British Columbia, Canada’s western-most province, said that the Citizen Lab does not accept government financing but is supported by private foundations, mostly in the United States, such as Ford and MacArthur. Most of his staff are also from the United States.

The lecture was sponsored by the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth.