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  • Lauren Salim

Digital Security for Human Rights Defenders

Author: Lauren Salim

September 12, 2023

[Image credit: Secure Networkers]

In 2021, the devices of six Palestinian human rights defenders were hacked with Pegasus spyware, developed by the surveillance company NSO Group. Pegasus spyware allows an attacker “to [access] a phone’s messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, passwords, voice calls on messaging apps, location data, calls and contacts. The spyware also has the potential to activate the phone camera and microphone, and spy on an individual's calls and activities.”

The Guardian, the Washington Post, and Le Monde released a report in 2021 that Pegasus software was being used to monitor politicians, journalists, and activists around the world.

Spyware is just one type of digital security risk human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and other members of civil society face in the course of their work. Other examples include:

  • tracking threats, such as bad actors accessing your location data;

  • networked threats, where hacking one device can compromise a larger network;

  • data and device modification threats, including the hacking of accounts; and

  • profiling threats, where your personal behavior or activities are recorded.

These threats can be transnational in nature, can go on undetected for some time, and can threaten the safety of a human rights defender or journalist and/or the integrity of their work. They can also create physical safety risks, and endanger other at-risk groups that are in contact with human rights defenders or journalists. Unfortunately, surveillance tactics are also constantly changing and becoming more sophisticated, which makes it challenging to fully protect yourself.

Frontline Defenders, an international human rights organization focused on protecting human rights defenders at risk, notes, “mobile phones, computers and the Internet are the main means by which human rights defenders (HRDs) communicate and coordinate their work as well as collect and store their research and findings, including sensitive data. Unfortunately, they are also the most common means by which governments and corporations restrict, manipulate and monitor the activity of human rights defenders.”

For journalists, digital security is important for the protection of the individual journalist, their network and sources, and the preservation of their research. Names, communications, and contact information of sources can be accessed by bad actors, compromising their safety. Electronic communications with editors and drafts stored online are also at risk. Human rights defenders and eyewitnesses face similar risks, and protecting research and data on hard drives, online accounts, and communications with other activists and networks is incredibly important.

Access Now, which runs the Digital Security Helpline, published a report after completing their 10,000th case. The helpline is available to assist at-risk activists, journalists, and non-profit organizations. In their report, Access Now notes that civil society is being targeted by a variety of different actors with a multitude of intentions and tactics. Governments are using surveillance technology to suppress dissidents. Private companies can also use online tools to target activists who criticize them. Additionally, companies creating surveillance technologies have seemingly refused to implement human rights principles into their design and do not take appropriate measures when these tools fall into the hands of actors that want to use them to violate the rights of others.

However, there are some resources available to help combat this growing issue.

Digital Security Tools

Encryption is an essential tool to help support digital security efforts for journalists and human rights defenders. Encrypted email, texting and voice apps, and file sharing protect data by converting it into a coded message that can’t be easily decoded without a “key” which unscrambles to data for readability.

[Image credit: Electronic Frontier Foundation]

Using a virtual private network (VPN) on an untrusted WiFi is another way to protect your privacy online. While they can’t provide total anonymity, VPNs encrypt your traffic and route it through a VPN server which makes it more challenging for others to track your activities, including browser history, online.

Many email services and social media platforms also have security check-up features that allow the account-holder to see which computers are logged into your accounts, which may help with identifying a problem early if you think your account is compromised.

Other tools like setting up two-factor authentication, which requires two forms of identification before the user is able to access their information, and privacy browser extensions that block invisible trackers can also help keep users safe online.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the tools listed above provide a launching pad for digital security for human rights defenders, journalists, and others to increase their digital security and to help protect themselves, their colleagues, and their work.


Additional Resources


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