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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Spyware and censorship: How governments control what you see online

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Governments are increasingly using digital surveillance to threaten, censor and silence online users, including journalists, explains researcher Justin Shilad, in an exclusive interview with Doha News.

With millions across the world turning to the internet for daily news, covert surveillance is putting freedom of information under threat. 

Spyware designed to monitor and encrypt online communication is often used without the subject’s knowledge or consent. Journalists, influencers and activists are hacked, threatened, humiliated and blackmailed into silence.

But this shady activity is not the work of small-time cyber criminals it’s increasingly a tool of government. 

Read also: OPINION: Saudi-UAE run bot factories are a threat to free speech

In an exclusive interview with Doha News, senior MENA researcher from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Justin Shilad, shares his views on media censorship by ‘Big Brother’ nations. 

“Curbs on press freedom and attacks against journalists take different forms worldwide, so it’s hard to speak in generalities about the reasons and motives,” he says. 

“However, we tend to see attacks on journalists and restrictions on press freedom whenever authorities whether they be local or national governments, or a non-state group exercising power want to control narratives and the flow of information.” 

Hacks, leaks and threats 

In recent months, a number of Al Jazeera journalists have been targeted by advanced spyware in attacks linked to the governments of former blockading countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In December 2020, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab reported malware that infected the personal devices of 36 Al Jazeera journalists. These hacks were traced back to the Israel-based NSO Group surveillance company, which is known for collaborating with repressive governments.

It was not the only reported hacking operation against an Al Jazeera journalist that year. 

One of the media company’s most prominent anchors, Ghada Oueiss, filed a lawsuit in Florida against numerous UAE and Saudi officials, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE’s de facto ruler Mohamed bin Zayed. The lawsuit asserts that both men, along with various other defendants, used Pegasus spyware to hack Oueiss’s phone. 

Data from Oueiss’s phone, including intimate images, was subsequently used in an industrial scale defamation campaign, with thousands of Twitter accounts, including dozens of Saudi and UAE-based influencers, circulating the images. The aim was to paint her as sexually promiscuous. 

This method of the attack against Oueiss suggested that there may be other ‘hack and leak’ attacks in the pipelines for the other 36 victims of the recent NSO Group attack. 

At the time, it was unclear what, if any, of the information from the other victims had been extracted, and how the operators intended to use it. Likely scenarios include blackmail, public shaming, or intelligence gathering.

The fact that most of the victims choose to remain anonymous points to potentially alarming situations whereby they fear speaking out may result in the release of private information. 

The increasing use of sophisticated zero-day and zero-click exploits- a newly discovered software vulnerability which allows hackers to exploit your device without you even knowing- targeting journalists highlights an alarming trend in attacking freedom of the press.

The phenomenon also shows how authoritarian practices are enabled by the highly unregulated transfer of surveillance software from commercial entities operating from Western-allied nations, such as Israel.

“Attacks against journalists and press freedom deprive the public of the right to information and the ability to ask questions, and they limit the stream of information available to the public,” Shilad said.

“To the extent that it’s possible to gauge public opinion in such circumstances, the public’s views on different issues and their ability to express those views are often highly constrained by what information is available to them.”

Whether it’s a hacking operation targeting a critical journalist, the imprisoning of a reporter delving into national and international politics, or threatening journalists and silencing them a key motivation of such attacks is to restrict information that contradicts government aims. 

Data collection tools such as digital surveillance and spyware could pose a lasting threat to citizens’ rights and media transparency.

“Attacks against journalists and restrictions on the media are, simply put, incompatible with the exercise of democracy and pluralistic societies,” Shilad added. 


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