Digital Transnational Repression: When states use the Internet to stifle dissent across borders

Niamh LeonardBy Niamh Leonard

Beyond studying surveillance technology exports, which I spoke about in my last blog post, the second area of focus for my summer internship has been contributing to the data collection process for an ongoing research project on digital transnational repression.

Digital transnational repression refers to when states seek to exert pressure – using digital tools – on citizens living abroad in order to constrain, limit, or eliminate political or social action that threatens regime stability or social and cultural norms within a country. While transnational repression itself is not a new phenomenon, the development of spyware has made repression much easier than it once was. Instead of having to send agents into foreign countries, governments can now threaten political dissidents across borders using cyberspace.

The Lab’s team has identified that one of the most pressing questions to tackle is how digital transnational repression can be addressed. Targets of digital transnational repression often turn to law enforcement for protection, attempt to use the legal system to seek justice and relief, or ask technology companies for support. However, a lack of coordinated response often makes it difficult for targets to get the support they need. The Lab has been studying possible legal and policy responses to this issue.

As a first step, in November 2020, the team published an annotated bibliography that includes media reports and analysis, technical reports, and academic literature about this emerging phenomenon. The annotated bibliography demonstrates that digital transnational repression is a pervasive problem, affecting individuals from many countries including Bahrain, China, Ethiopia and Iran.

The Guardian’s recent investigation into a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers believed to be targets of interest of clients of the Israeli spyware company NSO Group only confirms the scale of the problem. The investigation confirms what has been known for years: human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using NSO Group’s Pegasus hacking software. NSO Group is but one example of the many companies profiting from the sale of spyware to questionable actors.

To further study the impacts of digital transnational repression, the Lab has been conducting interviews with targets and other actors (e.g., journalists, policymakers and technologists) who have knowledge of instances of this phenomenon in Canada.

Throughout the summer, I participated in conducting and transcribing interviews with targets and other actors. I very much enjoyed this part of my work, as each interview was a deep dive into the political situation of various countries around the world. I learned a lot about how governments use digital tools to stifle political dissent and about the reality of many human rights defenders, journalists and refugees who live here in Canada.

Human rights defenders are often faced with impossible choices: in many cases having to choose between their own safety and that of their family on the one hand, and their ability to speak out about injustice on the other.

Hearing from individuals who have such moral courage only strengthened my own resolve to use the law as a tool to address injustice, promote human rights, and strengthen democracy. In the short-term, I will continue doing so at the Citizen Lab, where I will be staying on as a Legal Extern throughout the fall. I am grateful for this opportunity to continue learning from my amazing colleagues while contributing to the impactful research underway.

Human Rights in Cyberspace: An online internship about human rights online

Niamh LeonardBy Niamh Leonard
This summer, I am working as a Legal Extern at the Citizen Lab. The Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. The lab focuses on research, development, and high-level strategic policy and legal engagement at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security. I am working under the supervision of McGill Law graduate Siena Anstis, Senior Legal Advisor at the Lab (and an ultramarathoner!).

My primary focus is a research project on how regulation of surveillance technology exports can prevent human rights abuses. In particular, I am considering the role of corporate and state transparency practices. Surveillance technologies can have severe impacts on human rights: they can restrict freedom of expression, freedom of association or the right to privacy, but they can also enable unwarranted arrests and detentions, and in some cases torture or extrajudicial killings. Despite these human rights risks, they are often sold to governments with long track records of human rights violations, like Mexico.

I am researching the current legislative frameworks that exporting countries have in place to approve these exports, as well as the human rights obligations of exporting states under international and domestic law. My experience so far has been eye-opening: I have been delving into questions of international human rights law, trade law, national security and technology. I have also been expanding my vocabulary. For example, dual-use technologies are technologies that can have both military and civilian purposes. IMSI catchers (short for International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers) are essentially fake cell phone towers that let operators intercept mobile phone data and location data. Zero-day exploits are types of cyberattacks that exploit a vulnerability in existing software before it is patched by the company’s developers. Although most of us have never heard about these technologies and approaches, they are becoming increasingly commonplace on the global stage and have direct repercussions on our rights.

A highlight of my internship thus far has been the opportunity to work with an interdisciplinary team that advocates for a more just cyberspace through rigorous, thoughtful research. If you are looking for summer entertainment, I recommend Black Code or The Dissident, two documentaries that illustrate the importance of justice in cyberspace and feature Citizen Lab researchers.

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