The internet has the potential to empower grassroots social movements, but it also has the power to do the opposite when authoritarian regimes use it to spread false information or monitor their citizens. The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School brings together researchers and activists to help address issues at the intersection of digital security and human rights.
“In the early days when I started getting interested in the relationship between the internet and world politics and global security issues, there was a lot of enthusiasm about the technology,” says Ron Deibert, Citizen Lab founder and professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
“People thought that it would empower social movements and bring about a flourishing democracy. But what we’ve been tracking, and what’s become really apparent now, is that the tables are turning. The technology is actually helping facilitate authoritarian practices.”
The internet is such an essential part of our everyday lives that it’s difficult to imagine life without it. It can be an inspiring repository of information, but it can also be a tool for censorship. The data on what we say, who we talk to, the topics we search for, and where we go can easily become a surveillance tool with chilling consequences.
“It’s a pretty troubling picture,” adds Deibert. “You’re trying to raise awareness, indeed almost alarm people and say, ‘Look, this is a crisis. We need to do something about this.'”
The targets are often seen as threats, and they include journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, refugees who have fled the country. Eliminating these influences makes it easier to nudge societies away from democracy.
“Digital technologies allow these autocrats to effectively get inside their devices and monitor everything that they’re doing, often with lethal consequences.”
Beating these powerful players at their own game requires powerful tools of our own, and mimicry is one starting point that the Citizen Lab uses to turn the tables.
“My aim was to expose what’s going on, effectively appropriating those methods from state intelligence agencies and turning them on their head to watch the watchers,” explains Deibert.
“If we’re ever going to solve problems that afflict the planet as a whole, we need to have a robust, open, secure communication system that respects rights and through which people can debate and share ideas. What we’ve created, though, unintentionally I think, is totally counterproductive to those aims.”
It won’t be an easy problem to solve with so many competing interests. The internet is vast, and many global influences will control what citizens can access, and how their data is used. Social media are also an important influence, and they can be even more difficult to predict or police. They can favour shock over truth, but social connections make it easy to spread disinformation that peers readily accept.
“We need to raise awareness about the problems that are going on, and then think about how we’re going to remedy this, and that’s a big, big challenge.”