In a presentation titled “The Autocrat in Your iPhone,” Ronald Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, explained how “there’s been a proliferation of firms that are providing products and services to governments to enable them to [spy on their citizens] — various firms that Citizen Lab and others have tracked over the last decade are selling their technologies to governments who are turning around and abusing them.” The abuse can look like large-scale monitoring of entire communities, intercepting information via telecommunication networks, or as Deibert highlighted in his presentation, targeted attacks against individuals to “control dissent, neutralize political opposition, or undermine human rights activists” via spyware installed on their personal devices. Deibert drew upon case studies from victims in the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia to demonstrate the widespread nature of this kind of abuse. In these examples, targets have received unsolicited, personalized text messages that ultimately hijacked the victim’s phone — gaining access to their email, location history, or camera, which, in some cases, has led to the imprisonment or murder of the victims.
Governments engaging in cyber warfare against members of civil society are using technology that is readily available for government use but lacks regulation. “The overarching problem with this industry is that these firms [who are providing spyware tools to governments] justify what they’re doing by saying, ‘Look, our technology is strictly controlled and helps governments investigate serious matters of crime and terrorism,’” Deibert said. “The problem is that in many countries around the world, what counts as a criminal and what counts as a terrorist is very fluid.” And with governments increasingly using these tools beyond their borders, “it’s not just a human rights issue — this proliferation is the Wild West and is a serious national security concern.” Deibert also pointed to the importance of collaboration in combatting this growing challenge, highlighting the creation of the Amnesty International Security Lab, with support from Apple and the Ford Foundation, as a positive development.
During a question and answer session, Deibert shared his hope that government action will help bring more accountability to the space, “President Biden issued this executive order, which basically prohibits the use of commercial spyware that represents a risk to U.S. national security or is involved in human rights violations worldwide.”