It’s as if the world can see and hear the voices of ordinary people in China, which seemed impossible just a few weeks ago. News of new demonstrations taking place in various city squares and university campuses across the country appear almost hourly. Protesters are taking incredible risks, many for the first time, in the face of China’s notorious surveillance regime. China operates the world’s most powerful and sophisticated digital censorship apparatus for exactly this purpose: to silence people. And indeed, the news is full of protest messages on the Chinese internet and stories of media censorship, as well as reports of pro-China trolls flooding protest hashtags on Twitter with pornography and ads for escort services. There is probably a lot that is not being talked about or reported. South China Morning Post reporter Vivian Wu covers the protests minute by minute. he tweeted that there is still a “huge knowledge gap about the real China”.
But if the censorship regime was really omnipotent, we wouldn’t know so much. I’ve spent nearly a decade editing and organizing coverage of protest movements in the social media era. And I would never have imagined that I could open my browser to find people in China and Iran, two of the “real gangster” internet authoritarian states, defying these controls and beaming their solidarity across borders. My former colleague Mahsa Alimardani, an experienced expert on Internet surveillance in Iran, shared again A video from Shanghai of people shouting: “We don’t want dictatorship, we want democracy.” We don’t want a leader, we want to vote. We are with the people of Xinjiang! We are with Iranian women!” It reminds you that you can send and receive data when you connect.
It’s an option that people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region haven’t had, or only sporadically, for two years. It is almost impossible to collect information about atrocities and human rights violations. And nearly six million people have been silenced. There is no internet access in Tigray and there is no timetable for when access will be restored. Nevertheless, this week government delegations, technology experts and civil society groups gathered in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for the UN Internet Governance Forum. As if that wasn’t ironic enough, representatives apparently is prohibited from bringing digital devices into the main conference room. Nigerian tech law expert Gbenga Sesan put clearly: “The focus on restricting access to digital devices, just as the Internet is still being shut down in Tigray, is strange to the INTERNET Forum!”
YOU HAVE NO JURISDICTION FOR NSO IN US COURTS
Israeli spyware giant NSO Group is facing legal action in a number of jurisdictions, including a civil suit in the United States. In 2019, WhatsApp sued NSO Group after researchers proved the company used a technical vulnerability in WhatsApp systems to send invasive surveillance software known as Pegasus to at least 1,400 people, including more than 80 journalists and human rights activists. NSO does this only as a client of governments. However, this does not release him from responsibility for the damages he caused.
Owned by Meta, WhatsApp is one of the largest digital data collection and monitoring facilities in the world – one of the most popular means of communication worldwide. In some countries, using WhatsApp for messaging and voice calls is cheaper and more common than using a regular telecom provider. This makes the service an ideal target for governments looking to track down their critics.
We know from independent research and reports that journalists and human rights defenders in at least 20 countries have had their mobile devices infected with Pegasus, with consequences ranging from public humiliation to imprisonment and worse. If spyware companies like NSO think they can get away with targeting people via WhatsApp, there’s no reason to expect them to stop unless the courts can force their hand.
That’s why the legal challenge against the Israeli tech giant is so important. After the original filing, NSO responded with its own lawsuit, seeking “sovereign immunity” from legal challenges in the United States and claiming that it was merely acting as a contractor for foreign governments. But this tactic now seems to have failed. In an amicus brief filed last week, the US Department of Justice strongly objected to NSO’s petition, noting that “no foreign state supports NSO’s claim of immunity” and that NSO “does not even identify the states in which it claims to operate.” as an agent”.
The WhatsApp lawsuit, along with parliamentary investigations in Europe and growing concern within the US government, is increasing pressure for legislation to curb the use of commercial spyware.
WHAT ARE WE READING?
- Cate Cadell of The Washington Post is excellent handle about key components of China’s extreme surveillance, from facial recognition to smartphone expertise, real-name registration on social media, and how they might be applied in protest settings.
- The journalist was Tony Lin begging photo editors in media organizations should blur the faces of people in protest photos from China so that they can be identified and punished later. “It may be a few clicks, but if they have a connection, it could be a decade of difference,” he said.
- Jelani Cobb explained his decision to leave Twitter in depth in the New Yorker, reasoning: “Twitter is what it always has been: a money-making business — more openly. Now he is subsidizing a billionaire who interprets the word free as synonymous with the right to abuse others.”