Launching The Cyber Repression Series

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

Tom Brewster introduces a series of articles focusing on the plight of global activists in the face of mass cyber attacks and censorship

Over the last three years of covering security, I’ve noticed a significant number of attacks on activists. Yet rarely do they get much attention here, perhaps because the activists are rarely based on Western soil.

But now that the Occidental world is entranced by Edward Snowden’s leaks surrounding massive global surveillance carried out by the US, the UK and many others, now is the right time to expose much of the repression that happens across the world but rarely gets the coverage it deserves. People now seem to care more about privacy, and not just their own.

Repression - Shutterstock - nitoThe National Security Agency and the UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague, have justified their blanket surveillance on citizens with a fallacious platitude: if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve nothing to hide. In nations where repressive regimes aggressively spy on those expressing anti-government sentiment, and follow up their surveillance with arrests, even torture, that “logic” simply doesn’t stand up (not that it stands up in their defence of PRISM and other overzealous spying campaigns, but that’s for a different debate).

Highlighting activists’ plight

Enter our Cyber Repression Series. The first article in this series was posted this morning, an exclusive detailing how the Falun Gong spiritual group, which has long been persecuted in China, has been targeted by the same hacking collective that appears to have gone after military groups in the Philippines.

The details would hint the same skilled hackers able to penetrate government networks are hitting activists too. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which of those targets can better defend itself against advanced adversaries.

Over the next six to eight weeks, TechWeekEurope will focus on numerous nations across the world where the Internet is used to stifle freedom of expression – the exact opposite of what we believe it should be doing. We’ll hear about various kinds of repressive, Internet-based acts targeting Tibetans, Pakistanis, Bahrainis, Syrians and Zambians, amongst others.

Already this year, we’ve seen consistent attacks on activists. Last week, Mac malware appeared, signed with a legitimate Apple developer ID, that targeted anti-government Kazakhs. April saw Tibetans hit with Android malware. They were also one of many targets of the NetTraveller surveillance operation, believed to have been perpetrated by Chinese hackers. In January, the UAE government was accused of using a much-reported Java zero-day to get spyware on an activist’s machine. Meanwhile, British-made spyware, from Gamma International, spreads across the globe, as many fear it is being used by repressive regimes.

Elsewhere, we see repression through censorship: plans in Saudi Arabia to ban WhatsApp, claims the country is planning on intercepting such mobile communications apps, total Internet shutdowns in Syria, the YouTube block in Pakistan, and a country-wide blacklist of “harmful” websites in Russia, amongst many other examples.

This series will bring to light the plight of global activists, telling their stories of the cyber repression they and others in their country face. It will also tell the tale of the degradation of the Internet as a platform for freedom of speech, how it has been sullied, and how governments and technology vendors could be doing a lot more to make the online world a haven for those wanting to share their views.

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