For more than a decade, professor Ronald Deibert and his team of researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab have documented the war for the future of the internet. And they’ve kept close watch on the fighting factions — the states that want to harness the web for security purposes and the dissidents and ordinary citizens who seek to make it a vehicle for free expression.
In a year when the full scope of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is just beginning to be fully understood, Citizen Lab’s work to understand covert digital campaigns, including the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate public opinion, has never been more crucial.
Combining methods developed by hackers, engineers, and signals intelligence agencies, Citizen Lab has emerged as the foremost chronicler of how power is exercised — and abused — online. The lab has brought together computer scientists, engineers, and researchers to expose how authorities in the United Arab Emirates contracted an Israeli firm to burrow into the phone of a local dissident; how a massive espionage operation broke into computers in more than 100 countries, likely on behalf of China; and how surveillance software sold to the Mexican government targeted journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists.
On the heels of Russia’s attempt to boost Donald Trump’s electoral prospects by hacking and leaking documents during the U.S. presidential campaign, Citizen Lab revealed in May how Russian hackers broke into the email of David Satter, a prominent journalist and Kremlin critic, and then leaked manipulated versions of his emails to paint him as a CIA stooge. That piece of digital detective work was the first comprehensive examination of how state operatives are altering information that is hacked and leaked to the public — a technique that likely represents the next frontier in Russian influence operations, according to American intelligence officials.
This research agenda examining the intersection of online power and human rights has concrete impacts for computer users around the world. The 2016 UAE espionage operation documented by Citizen Lab researchers utilized a set of serious technical flaws in Apple software used by more than 1 billion users. Citizen Lab informed Apple ahead of publishing its report, and the flaw was fixed, improving privacy and security for affected users.
“When I started Citizen Lab, there was a spirit of optimism around the internet and civil society and democracy — that they were mutually reinforcing in a positive direction,” Deibert says. Today, that hopeful future seems far off, with digital tools being used to “stabilize and in some cases further amplify tendencies around authoritarianism.”
One project at a time, Deibert and his researchers are attempting to expose how governments are using the internet against one another and their citizens. Deibert’s researchers pick apart computer code used for surveillance — often sold to governments by private firms for top dollar — in order to understand who is being targeted and how. By closely studying code and computer infrastructure, Citizen Lab researchers turn the tools of surveillance back on the watchers.
By lifting the lid on what Deibert describes as the “subterranean world of geopolitical competition in what we would today call cyberspace,” Citizen Lab’s work tries to answer pressing digital human rights questions by exposing the vendors of surveillance software, documenting how governments attempt to control the flow of information, and revealing how companies trafficking in so-called “big data” have become the handmaidens of Big Brother.
While Moscow has turned the internet into a tool for foreign political manipulation, other authoritarian states have also utilized the web for domestic control — trends that call into question whether the internet can be a force for democratic progress as it was once widely believed.
“It was out of the university that the internet was born,” Deibert says. “If anyone is going to save it, it will be the university.”
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Deibert co-founded Psiphon, an online tool designed to help people circumvent censored content on the internet.