Canada's cyber steward on digital espionage, democracy and protecting the Internet
Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, the University of Toronto's vaunted digital watchdog, explains the importance of the Cyber Stewards Network project, which supports building cybersecurity in places such as Asia, Africa and Latin America
Posted by Niki Wilson on December 16, 2016
Ask Ron Deibert how to think about cyberspace and you won’t get an impenetrable discourse on network architecture. For Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a digital watchdog that researches the exercise of political power in cyberspace, it’s much simpler than that. “We should think about it as a global commons,” he says. “Something like the environment that we need to work together to steward and protect.”
Deibert, who wrote Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, a documentary film adaptation of which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, knows plenty about protecting and stewarding cyberspace, especially in regions where Internet use is growing. Here, he discusses the lab’s Cyber Stewards Network, which partners with groups in the global south — Africa, Latin America, developing Asian nations and the Middle East — to uncover emerging digital threats.
On cybersecurity issues in the global south
The most interesting issues in cybersecurity come from the global south. The majority of the world’s population resides there, and the growth of Internet users is extraordinary. In Indonesia alone there are about 800,000 new users a month.
Most of that growth is happening in countries that are failed states or that are sliding into, or just emerging from, authoritarianism. Many are conservative cultures that have different norms around access to information and freedom of speech, and in many there are insurgencies, armed conflict and terrorism. These states are the target of a huge market selling products and services that enable governments to engage in mass surveillance, cellphone tracking and social-media monitoring. That’s why we have to pay attention to what’s happening there.
On the formation of the Cyber Stewards Network
The development of the Internet is one of the most profound changes in communications in human history. We need people around the world working locally but thinking globally about how to protect it, so in partnership with the International Development Research Centre, Citizen Lab formed the network, which combines research and advocacy. A lot of the groups in the network want to do more than just research — they want to push for change. We help them with the research and they do the advocacy.
On how the network helped exiled Tibetans
One of our most successful partnerships was with some exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala, India. As targets of highly sophisticated cyberattacks by the Chinese government, Tibetans are like canaries in the coal mine — they are often the first in the world to be hit by new kinds of threats.
The groups we worked with shared samples of malicious software and email attachments they’d received. They also allowed us to better understand their communities, how they grappled with these attacks and the harm that comes from cyber espionage, which helped inform our research. They then developed better ways to defend themselves against these threats. For example, they created a campaign called Detach from Attachment, which plays on Buddhist philosophy and teaches people not to click on email attachments, which was the primary way they were being targeted. They also have a project called Be a Cyber Superhero that takes the findings of our collaborative research to teach the community how to mitigate the threat.
On what happens if the global community doesn’t work for a secure cyberspace
Unfortunately, there’s a silent epidemic in civil society. Activists, journalists and NGOs are being targeted with the most advanced surveillance technologies, and they’re not equipped to deal with it. Unlike governments or private companies, they don’t have the resources to hire digital security experts or companies to monitor their networks. Sometimes, they barely have enough resources to hire someone to plug in the printer, let alone deal with Chinese cyber espionage.
Governments — whether in Nigeria, Latin America or the Middle East — are putting in draconian restrictions such as mass surveillance programs and curtailing the activities of journalists, all under the rubric of cybersecurity. Securing cyberspace involves more than technical solutions because however valuable those may be, they’re not going to solve the problem in its entirety because technologies are always changing. We also need to approach the problems as an issue that arises from government and private-sector behavior, which will require wholesale legal and policy changes. Otherwise, these restriction and surveillance activities will ultimately result in a crisis of democracy.
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at idrc.ca.