On-line dissidents innovate as repressive regimes deploy ‘digital weapons’

While China’s Internet branch is exploding beyond the domestic market, Beijing is tightening the rules for online communication, Deutsche Welle reports:

In early August, the State Internet Information Office issued new regulations for chat services. It stipulated that only media organizations registered in China are allowed to disseminate instant messages. Additionally, private users are required to register their accounts using their real names and will be subject to a verification process. 

According to The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, CloudShield Technologies, a California defense contractor, is selling lucrative spyware tools to foreign security services, some of them with records of human rights abuse:

CloudShield’s central role in Gamma’s controversial work — fraught with legal risk under U.S. export restrictions — was first uncovered by Morgan Marquis-Boire, author of a new report released Friday by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He shared advance drafts with The Post, which conducted its own month-long investigation.  

The prototype that CloudShield built was never brought to market, and the company parted ways with Gamma in 2010. But Marquis-Boire said CloudShield’s work helped pioneer a new generation of “network injection appliances” sold by Gamma and its Italian rival, Hacking Team. Those devices harness malicious software to specialized equipment attached directly to the central switching points of a foreign government’s national Internet grid.

The result: Merely by playing a YouTube video or visiting a Microsoft Live service page, for instance, an unknown number of computers around the world have been implanted with Trojan horses by government security services that siphon their communications and files. Google, which owns YouTube, and Microsoft are racing to close the vulnerability.

Citizen Lab’s report, based on leaked technical documents, is the first to document that commercial spyware companies are making active use of this technology. Network injection allows products built by Gamma and Hacking Team to insert themselves into an Internet data flow and change it undetectably in transit. ….

Security researchers have documented clandestine sales of Gamma and Hacking Team products to “some of the world’s most notorious abusers of human rights,” said Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, a list that includes Turkmenistan, Egypt, Bahrain and Ethiopia.

But dissidents and activists are becoming more sophisticated and resourceful in using the internet to promote democracy and human rights, and circumventing censorship and to groups like Movements.Org, as demonstrated by the following sample cases:

  • A Syrian activist and university student seeking asylum in the United States posted an urgent request for help and representation, as his life would be in grave jeopardy should he return to his native country. A professor at The John Marshall Law School, based in Chicago, took on the case, and is helping the activist attain asylum.
  • A famed former Iranian political prisoner who spent tens of years in jail asked for help saving a radio station he runs which broadcasts into Iran.  A senior American official saw the post and reached out to the dissident.
  • A North Korean defector asked for helping getting information in and out of their dictatorial regime.  Radio, satellite and computer experts connected with the defector to talk about new technologies to help make this possible.
  • A Cuban blogger hoping to circumvent censorship in her home country and Ecuador posted a request for technological help getting around firewalls.  She was contacted by several computer programmers and security experts who offered to walk her through the process of protecting her information.
  • Activists requested a  song be written to honor the late Russian accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who was was arrested and tortured after exposing corruption of the Putin regime.  Magnitsky died in prison. A songwriter in NYC saw the request on Movements.org, and wrote a catchy song to commemorate his life (see below).  The song was featured on Al Jazeera and in The Wall Street Journal.
  • A request written on behalf of a famed Syrian dissident who spent a decade in prison under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, asked to publish an op-ed in a major American publication about how to bring peace to Syria.  A short time later, the article was published in The Daily Beast.
  • A Saudi expert on combatting state-sponsored incitement in textbooks posted a request to speak with members of the German government due to their strict anti-hate-speech laws.  A former German foundation executive saw the post and is now connecting the Saudi activist with senior members of the German government.
  • A secular Syrian group posted a request for PR aid to explain to Americans that the opposition is not comprised solely of radical elements.  The founder of a strategic communication firm based in Los Angeles responded and offered help.
  • An editor from a major American paper posted a request for human rights stories that often are not told. He was contacted by a liberal activist from Iraq whose family and friends were killed by al-Qaeda.

Advancing Human Rights has launched Movements.org, an online platform where dissidents in closed societies can connect to the legal, media, public relations, and technological expertise of open societies. A dissident seeking asylum in a closed society can connect with an asylum lawyer abroad who can provide pro bono legal assistance. A journalist dedicated to unearthing the secrets of dictators can connect with local dissidents to piece together the story. By leveraging democratic tools to assist activists achieve freedom, activists can challenge authorities with a new, clear voice.

Bahrain rights activist released from prison

nabeel-rajab1Prominent Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab has been freed after serving two years in prison for his involvement in illegal protests, the BBC reports:

Rajab, who heads the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), was convicted in 2012 of taking part in illegal gatherings and disturbing public order.

An appeals court later reduced his original three-year term by a year. He was one of several leading activists arrested by the authorities after pro-democracy protests erupted in 2011.

The activist is a key icon for the protest movement against the Gulf Arab monarchy’s Sunni rulers. Since 2011, the country’s majority Shiites have been protesting, demanding greater rights and political freedoms, AP reports:

Rajab told The Associated Press that he is happy to be out after more than 600 days in prison, and called for the release of all political prisoners. He said stability can only be achieved “through respect for human rights.”

“After two years in prison, I see Bahrain’s political environment as more difficult and still without a roadmap for real reforms,” he said.

In mid-2012, Rajab was also sentenced to three months for his comments on Twitter about Bahrain’s prime minister. His conviction was overturned on appeal during his prison sentence for taking part in protests.

Also on Saturday, thousands of people marched in a funeral for 15-year old Sayed Mohsen, who died during protests earlier this week in Sitra, south of the capital, Manama. The procession turned violent when mourners clashed with security forces nearby. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Mohsen’s family and the country’s main opposition group Al Wifaq said the teenager died after being shot in the chest at close range with bird shot — a weapon commonly used by Bahraini police.

“While the specific circumstances in which Sayed Mohsen was shot remain unclear, the use of force in policing public assemblies … must conform to the requirements of necessity and proportionality; and firearms may only be used as a last resort,” Amnesty International said in a statement.