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Access Now: how to defend human rights in the digital age

From Palestine to China and the US, internet shutdowns, mass surveillance, and censorship are rife – here, global non-profit Access Now discuss challenging the biggest threats to digital autonomy

The government has more control over our digital lives than ever. In the last year, internet shutdowns in Cuba, Kenya, and India have silenced citizens and their right to protest. Latin American governments are implementing surveillance tech, including the capture of biometric data, in public spaces under the guise of ‘public safety’, while Russia, Turkey, and Nigeria have blocked access to Twitter and Instagram, labelling the platforms as ‘extremist’.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that an Israeli spyware software called Pegasus had hacked into phones across the world, transforming mobile devices into 24-hour surveillance tools by secretly filming you through your phone’s camera, or activating the microphone to record your conversations. Vaccine passports and contact tracing apps pose further threats to our digital autonomy.

With the tagline “digital rights are human rights”, Access Now is at the forefront of the fight against online repression. As well as engaging with governments and private companies to protect laws surrounding digital autonomy, the global nonprofit organisation provides grants and support to grassroots organisations to advance the rights of users and communities at risk of digital violations. A 24/7 digital helpline provides real-time advice to civil society organisations, activists, and journalists who are in need of digital security support, or who are facing cyber threats or attacks and need urgent support.

Following on from their talk at Unsound 2021, Access Now’s Eliška Pírková, Natalia Krapiva, and Marwa Fatafta discuss some of the biggest threats to digital autonomy and how to fight them.

Can you explain what Access Now is in your own words?

Marwa Fatafta: We are a global human rights organisation working to advance and protect human rights in the digital age. Our mission is to defend internet users at risk.

What sort of help might they need?

Eliška Pírková: They might need it preventively – for example, if they’re doing sensitive work, and they need advice on how to proactively secure safe communications. Or, if they need advice in storing sensitive data. But it also depends on the situation, because no one size fits all. 

You mentioned in your talk at Unsound festival that there’s a lot of similarities in the forms of digital authoritarianism we see across the world. What would you say are some of the main problems?

Eliška Pírková: Even though the context and socio-political or geopolitical contexts differ significantly, we see very common trends across different regions. One of the main forms is state sponsored censorship that often happens through state regulation – and is intrusive to human rights. This regulation is often adopted under the guise of trying to secure and protect public security and safety. It claims to protect society against disinformation, false news, and other extremely woke terminology that they intentionally put into these legislations.

What effect does using this woke terminology have? 

Eliška Pírková: It silences the critical voices or the voices of historically oppressed and marginalised groups. We also see increasingly how states abuse different informal corporations and pressure platforms to comply with their agenda and political issues. Because, of course, especially in authoritarian regimes, many human rights activists cannot rely on the state as the main protector of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, even though that‘s the traditional function of the state based on the rule of law. 

These defenders are often dependent on platforms and the response of platforms. And I think this is something we see in the digital security helpline every day. If the state continues to try to manipulate platforms, threaten them, pressure them to take certain decisions that comply with the wishes and agenda of an authoritarian regime, then pretty much all civic and public space is really limited – and even dangerous to actually publicly act or voice opinions.

How have governments changed their digital tactics in the last few years?

Marwa Fatafta: 10 years ago, we had the historically significant event of the Arab Spring. And, around the time, there was a lot of promise around the power of social media and revolutionising access to information and for individuals – and particularly activists to express themselves and document human rights abuses.

But, unfortunately, that has very much changed. The suppression of legitimate speech, and particularly political dissent and discussions, are sanctioned not only by the state, but also by private companies. Platforms themselves either design policies that don’t take into consideration local context, and therefore, often result in the censorship of such speech.

Since 2011, we’ve seen states use the pretext of fighting terrorism to quell and silence dissent, and crack down on human rights defenders and activists because they‘re afraid of the revolutions or the uprisings of 2011 happening again. So many governments in North Africa and the Middle East try to control the internet as if it’s a form of state property. They’re trying to exert state sovereignty onto the online sphere.

What effect has the pandemic had on these pre-existing problems?

Marwa Fatafta: During the pandemic, we saw a kind of a new wave of legislation, mostly focusing on fighting ‘fake news’ or ‘misinformation’. Again, this was used as an excuse to curb and to silence legitimate speech.

There was also this manifestation of tech-solutionism, where governments believed that technology could solve all of our problems, including health and societal problems. In the onset of the pandemic, governments rushed to technological solutions, such as contact tracing apps in order to manage the spread of coronavirus. And in many cases, those solutions and those contact tracing apps were developed and implemented without having any privacy safeguards or data protection safeguards.

Earlier this year, news came out about Pegasus spyware tapping into peoples’ phones and stealing their personal information. What are your thoughts on this?

Marwa Fatafta: The Pegasus spyware revelations are really just the tip of the iceberg. We need to shed light on those private companies that provide both democratic and authoritarian regimes with invasive surveillance technologies. They simply buy them or recruit private expertise from companies like Pegasus to monitor and invade people’s private lives and spaces.

What’s the extent of access they can tap into?

Marwa Fatafta: You can have full access to an individual‘s life, their movements, their private and professional communication, their contact information, their messages, their photos, their conversations. Once your phone is infected with the speaker spyware, both the camera and the microphone can be just turned on without your knowledge.

Natalia Krapiva: There’s two main things. One is targeted surveillance through spyware. And then there’s mass surveillance, such as the use of facial recognition technology on a mass scale. Importantly, these forms of surveillance aren’t only deployed by authoritarian governments, but so-called democratic countries are now turning to these harmful technologies to surveil their citizens. We know that Pegasus is being rolled out in countries across the world, such as in Germany and Belgium.

What are some other patterns you’ve observed?

Natalia Krapiva: Related to this is also an attack on encryption. We’re seeing Germany and the US, our law enforcement and government officials, increasingly demanding and even passing legislation, or attempting to pass legislation, forcing companies to give backdoor access to phones and platforms to weaken encryption – which we all depend on for secure communication.

Internet shutdowns are another trend that we’ve documented. There were at least 155 internet shutdowns in 29 countries in 2020. And this is something that we document every year. During COVID, this has been a huge problem because we all rely on the internet for everything we do in life, whether that’s education, work, or communication with our loved ones. Even seeking medical help. 

Lastly, we’re seeing the rise of the sovereign internet. Russia is a big example here, but there’s also similar legislation being proposed in Latin American countries, where states want to have technical means to block or surveil. They want centrally installed infrastructure so that they can centrally control and sift through the networks and pick and choose what they want to admit or block. This gives them centralised control over the visibility of the data that passes through the networks.

They use the justification that they want to protect themselves from foreign attacks, but a lot of times the purpose of this is basically just to exert control over information and surveil the population.

What advice would you give to young people wanting to protect themselves against digital intrusions? 

Natalia Krapiva: It‘s important to use secure messaging platforms. If you see that governments are trying to weaken the platforms and infrastructure that we all rely on, and making them less secure, you should speak up. And keep using secure messaging platforms, like Signal.

We would encourage those in countries where it’s okay to use their voice to not allow for things to just deteriorate to a point where all of us will have to wake up one day and have sovereign internet everywhere, with no ability to have any privacy or anonymity or security, let alone our communication and the ability to express ourselves online.

We just want to encourage folks to speak up against these practices, no matter where they‘re happening, speak up against digital authoritarianism, and, and yet, to help protect a safe and open Internet for all of us.