With the rise of everything digital, personal and state security needs to continue to be a priority in order to protect liberal democracies throughout the world.
Ronald Deibert, one of Canada’s leading experts on digital espionage and a professor at the University of Toronto, will be coming to Lacombe on Sunday, April 7th at 7:30 p.m. at the Lacombe Memorial Centre as part of Burman University’s Herr Lecture Series.
The talk, ‘Digital Espionage Against Global Civil Society: Tracking a Growing Threat to Democracy’ provides an overview of ‘Citizen Lab’, which researches digital security issues that arise out of human rights concerns.
“We are a mixed-method lab,” Deibert said. “I am a political scientist, but most of the people working for me are in computer science and engineering science. We employ these methods to lift the lid on the Internet. We do this in a variety of areas, one of which I will be speaking on.
“It is about tracking how nation-states and other actors hack into phones and devices of civil society, including civil rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and so on.”
One of the most high-profile cases the lab worked on was on Canadian citizen Omar Abdulaziz, who was a Canadian who spoke out against the authoritarian and repressive Saudi Arabian government. Abdulaziz was also a close associate of Jamal Kashoggi, who was a Saudi Arabian journalist who spoke out against Saudi Leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (MBS)
It is assumed that Kashoggi was murdered by what are assumed to be Saudi Arabia intelligence offices on the order of MBS.
“We see this as a rising epidemic and threat in our civil society and by extension our democracy,” Deibert said. “It is very much a growing threat. A confluence of factors is making this a growing threat.
“People are more and more digitally equipped and in many respects, this presents a threat to established forms of rule — especially unaccountable autocratic forms of rule.”
Deibert said that after the Arab Spring, which was a series of uprisings against oppressive regimes across the middle east, many authoritarian governments searched out new methods to stamp out resistance to their autocratic rules.
“They started taking counter-measures by finding companies who are ready and willing to supply them with sophisticated surveillance technologies,” he said. “These companies don’t particularly care about how their clients will use those technologies, so we are finding that products and services that are marketed under the rubric of fighting crime and terror are instead being used to infiltrate and abuse civil society.”
In the case of Kashoggi, Saudi state intelligence agencies ended up with Israeli spyware.
“They then use that technology, even though it is supposed to be strictly controlled to fight criminals and terrorists, to go after dissidents. Even if those dissidents live abroad, like Omar (Abdulaziz) does here in Canada,” Deibert said.
Saudi Arabia is just one of the many authoritarian regimes throughout the world who are using spyware to persecute journalists, lawyers, civil rights defenders and other legitimate members of society.
“The worst I would say is in Mexico, where we have identified 25 victims who have been targeted using Israeli spyware sold to the Mexican government,” he said. “None of these people are terrorists, they are journalists, human rights defenders, family members of journalists and even international investigators.”
He added these state agents are increasing, “Aggressive and are exercising power internationally.”
“When it comes to countries that are authoritarian-minded, which unfortunately is the majority and is growing, they are targeting people who they conceive as threats, criminals and terrorists. We in the west would consider them legitimate members of society.”
Diebert said the point of speaking out to the general public is to alert them to this growing international threat.
“Maybe in some cases overturn a conventional wisdom that many people have had for a long time where the Internet is advancing liberal democracy,” he said. “What I have seen over the last 20 years is the exact opposite.
“It has become perhaps the biggest threat to liberal democracy world-wide and it is enabling authoritarianism.”
“I want to warn people this is going on and the next step is to alert people to their own digital hygiene and practices. They need to think twice of the technology they rely on. They don’t understand how exposed they are.”
“If you Google securityplanner.org, it will come up. I highly recommend it,” he said.
Tickets to the event are free and can be booked in advance by clicking logging onto Burman University’s Eventbrite page.