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When is targeted surveillance wrong?

For many of us, that unsettling feeling of being watched is all too real. After all, we live in a world of mass surveillance, from facial recognition to online tracking – governments and tech companies are harvesting intimate information about billions of people. Targeted surveillance is slightly different. It’s the use of technology to spy on specific people.

You may think this is fine, because aren’t people only targeted when they’ve done something wrong? Think again.

From Mexico to the Middle East, governments are wielding a range of sophisticated cyber-tools to unlawfully spy on their critics. A seemingly innocuous missed call, a personalized text message or unknowingly redirected to malicious website for a split second, and without you being aware the spyware is installed.

The people targeted are often journalists, bloggers and activists (including Amnesty’s own staff) voicing inconvenient truths. They may be exposing corrupt deals, demanding electoral reform, or promoting the right to privacy. Their defence of human rights puts them at odds with their governments. Rather than listen, governments prefer to shut them down. And when governments attack the people who are defending our rights, then we’re all at risk.

The authorities use clever cyber-attacks to access users’ phones and computers. Once in, they can find out who their contacts are, their passwords, their social media habits, their texts. They can record conversations. They can find out everything about that person, tap into their network, find out about their work, and destroy it. Since 2017, Amnesty’s own research has uncovered attacks like these in Egypt, India, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Uzbekistan.

Remember, the users we’re talking about are human rights activists, among them journalists, bloggers, poets, teachers and so many others who bravely take a stand for justice, equality and freedom. They take these risks so we don’t have to. But voicing concerns about government conduct and policy makes them unpopular with the authorities. So much so that governments resort to dirty tricks, smearing activists and re-branding them as criminals and terrorists.

Some of the most insidious attacks on human rights defenders have been waged using spyware manufactured by NSO Group. A major player in the shadowy surveillance industry, they specialise in cyber-surveillance tools.

NSO is responsible for Pegasus malware, a powerful programme that can turn on your phone’s microphone and camera without your knowledge. It can also access your emails and texts, track your keystrokes and collect data about you. The worst thing is you don’t have to do anything to trigger it – Pegasus can be installed without you ever knowing.

NSO say they’re creating technology that helps governments fight terrorism and crime. But as early as 2018, when one of our own staff was targeted through WhatsApp, our Security Lab discovered a network of more than 600 suspicious websites owned by NSO that could be used to spy on journalists and activists around the world. We were not wrong. In 2019, thousands of people received scam WhatsApp call, leading WhatsApp to later sue NSO. More recently we documented the cases of Moroccan activists who had been similarly targeted.

Trolls Are Swarming Young Climate Activists Online

On the morning of August 25, 11-year-old Lilly Platt tweeted a video clip of a Brazilian Amazon tribe speaking out against deforestation. Awareness of the Amazon wildfires was already at a fever pitch, and the tweet exploded. Then, within an hour, a swarm of troll accounts started flooding her mentions with porn. Shortly after the attack, her mom, Eleanor Platt, made an online plea for help: “Dear Friends of Lilly, this is Lillys mum she is being targeted by revolting trolls who are spamming her feed with pornography. There is only so much i can do to block this. Please if you see these posts report them.” Over the course of the day, some of Lilly’s nearly 10,000 followers did just that.

Young girls like Lilly, who has been striking in her hometown of Utrecht, Netherlands, every Friday for the last year, are overwhelmingly leading a growing global movement to draw attention to the climate crisis. They spurred an estimated 4 million people across seven continents to walk out of work and school on September 20 — and they are getting attacked for it. They have faced a barrage of daily insults, seemingly coordinated attacks (like the one that targeted Lilly), creepy DMs, doxing, hacked accounts, and death threats. This is the new normal for young climate leaders online, according to BuzzFeed News interviews with nearly a dozen of the kids and their parents.

Personal attacks have always been a part of the climate denial playbook, even as fossil fuel companies secretly funded campaigns and researchers to question the scientific consensus on climate change. The most famous incident, 2009’s Climategate, involved scientists getting their emails hacked and then facing death threats. And as the politics of climate change begins to mirror the broader dark trends of global politics, weaponized social media — in the form of intimidation, memes, and disinformation — has emerged as the dominant vehicle for climate denial. But the rise of a new climate movement means there’s now a much more visible — and especially vulnerable — target: kids.

Police in Several US Cities Used Facial Recognition To Hunt Down and Arrest Protesters

Law enforcement in several cities, including New York and Miami, have reportedly been using controversial facial recognition software to track down and arrest individuals who allegedly participated in criminal activity during Black Lives Matter protests months after the fact. Miami police used Clearview AI to identify and arrest a woman for allegedly throwing a rock at a police officer during a May protest, local NBC affiliate WTVJ reported this week…

Similar reports have surfaced from around the country in recent weeks. Police in Columbia, South Carolina, and the surrounding county likewise used facial recognition, though from a different vendor, to arrest several protesters after the fact, according to local paper The State. Investigators in Philadelphia also used facial recognition software, from a third vendor, to identify protestors from photos posted to Instagram, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.