The New Cold War: Citizen Lab Hacktivists, Human Rights Advocates Are Leading the Global Charge for Democracy in Cyberspace
IN THAT nervous time after 9/11, many Western governments imposed draconian surveillance laws allowing them to eavesdrop on cyber-communications among suspected terrorist groups. The legislation attracted muted criticism in some corners; in 2002, Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, denounced the Bush administration’s Patriot Act as “unfair and unpatriotic.” But many techno-libertarians felt the scrutiny would prove irrelevant. They insisted the Internet had become too amorphous, too slippery, and too free to yield to the controlling impulses of the cyber-security complex in the United States and elsewhere.
As Ron Deibert pondered the implications of such measures —and the technologies required to enforce them — he felt far less sanguine about the Internet’s anarchic DNA. Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and the Canada Centre for Global Security, knew that many despotic regimes also collect and restrict information. “I was a little skeptical about the assumption that authoritarian governments wouldn’t be able to control the technology,” he says. In his view, it was only a matter of time before repressive regimes would begin to assert their power in cyberspace.
He was absolutely right.
The so-called war on terror did indeed give law enforcement officials in Western nations an excuse to bulk up their powers to use the Internet for tracking terrorists. For example, in 2009 the FBI arrested a man suspected of planning an al Qaeda attack on the New York subway system, based on evidence collected from his email correspondence and Internet searches (he was looking for suppliers of ingredients for explosives). But over the past several years, and especially since the Arab Spring uprisings, some of the world’s nastiest regimes have also built cyber-surveillance systems capable of minutely filtering web access while launching stealthy counter-strikes at social media-fuelled revolutions. China has built a national firewall to halt the flow of inconvenient digital information across its borders. Following the disputed 2009 election in Iran, the ruling regime arrested bloggers and imposed harsh sentences for criticizing the government online. And Syria, in addition to limiting its own citizens’ Internet access, has created a cyber-army manned by hacker soldiers who conduct electronic raids to deface or compromise foreign websites it deems hostile to the country’s leadership.