The rise of high-tech despotism

Noura Al-Jizawi was a key figure in the Syrian uprising during the Arab Spring ten years ago. She was snatched from a bus, sent to prison without charges, tortured and emerged seven months later.

When Al-Jizawi finally left Syria, she assumed she’d be able to put this kind of heavy-handed repression behind her. Instead, she became the target of a new kind of high-tech despotism at the hands of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime.

And she’s not alone. Surveillance technologies now allow controlling regimes to order up sophisticated, privatized subversion campaigns against their opponents as easily as they can order something on eBay. Al-Jizawi, now a researcher at the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto organization that focuses on digital espionage and civil society, co-authored a report last month that focused on the toll the long arm of digital transnational repression takes on its victims.

She sat down with CLICK HERE host Dina Temple-Raston to tell her story. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Al-Jizawi: I can recall in the very first days of the revolution, in Syria, we [had] the internet and we believed it was a good tool. But as an old-school activist, I kept believing no, no it’s not safe. I was traveling from Damascus to Aleppo, and I was all the time considering that the technology could be turned [into] a monster. And I was [caught] by the monster.

The regime back then, as far as I knew, got new surveillance technology to identify the exact locations of people through tracking your SIM cards. So the regime could identify back then my location through the GPS. I was on a bus, and I was taken. I found, like, four men without uniforms, but they had their guns saying, Come now.

Dina Temple-Raston: And were you worried in any particular way because you were a woman, as opposed to a man? I mean, I’ve always felt like women worry about different things when something like detention happens.

NAJ: Yeah, definitely. I was reporting the sexual-based violence committed in the detention facilities by the regime forces or even when they were attacking the cities. The first 40 days of my detention, I was alone in a private cell, but then I was moved to another security branch where I met a lot of women, even harsh ones who were torturedly.

I remember one [woman], she was refusing to talk to a lawyer. She was refusing even to file a paper asking for the release. And she was saying, “No, the best place for me to be protected is here.” And it was unbelievable. I was asking her, “How do you feel like in prison you will be protected?” She said, “Once I will be released, there [are] misogynist consequences waiting for me.” She was repeating this story of another woman from her village [who] was detained. And once she was released, she was murdered by her family because they were influenced by the product that she was sexually assaulted in the prison.

DTR: So when you went to Canada to start a new life, how long did you have where you were sort of left alone? In the sense that the regime didn’t chase you there?

NAJ: I don’t believe that the regime stopped chasing me ever — even when I was in Turkey. Between the moment I crossed the border to Turkey and the moment I flew to Canada, I had approximately four years of activism in Turkey. But I believe that there was no single moment that the regime left me alone. I can recall attempts of threatening me, visiting my relatives in Syria.

When it comes to digital repression, I’ve been through a lot of phishing attempts…disinformation campaigns. Even there was an attempt to hack my devices, and that was the first time I officially met the Citizen Lab.

DTR: And what was that hack? The one that finally brought you to Citizen Lab?

NAJ: I received a suspicious email and somehow — because my husband is a cybersecurity expert and also I have my own understanding of how to be protected online — I didn’t open the attachment. Instead, I told my husband, “Hey, there is something wrong. And I think you should see that.” He took a look at that, and it was a malicious attachment.

DTR: Do you remember what the email said?

NAJ: It was an attachment saying — it was a massive campaign. It was not only the attachment, but behind that there was an entire domain booked under my name. And if it would have [had] a chance to see the light and succeed, it would [have been] a massive phishing campaign targeting a lot of people.

DTR: So, if I understand this correctly, this digital oppression, it didn’t have a start date. From the moment you left, you were dealing with this long arm of the regime wherever you were — it was just digital now. Is that correct?

NAJ: Yeah, I believe, like, even when I was in Turkey, the arms of the regime were offline and online. Here in Canada, I changed a lot of my tactics. So I can’t believe that we are safe from transnational repression, but at least we are doing our best to be protected and safe.

DTR: So what led you to author this report [about the psychological impact of this digital repression]?

NAJ: I believe the idea came from [Citizen Lab founder] Ron [Deibert]. The lab has been reporting the digital repression targeting human rights defenders and this evidence for more than two decades. Some of these targets were being targeted domestically, but many others were being targeted transnationally. I believe the biggest story was about the hacking of Omar Abdulaziz. [Saudi Arabia] This did in Canada, and then the traumatic assassination of Jamal Khashoggi — and the aftermath of all of these discoveries when the connection was made between the hacking and the assassination of Jamal. [After hiring an Israeli company, NSO Group, to hack into the Abdulaziz’s phone, investigators believe Saudi operatives saw messages exchangd between Abdulaziz and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was later murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.]

People are not feeling safe, and it’s not enough to be in Canada or in a liberal democratic country and say these people are safe and can build their life again. These authoritarian regimes are not leaving them alone. I knew Jamal, and I believe if he can send us a message now, he would say, “Make sure that I will be the last one.”

[But] it was not a one-time story. I believe [in] Putting all of these pieces of this story together, we ended up with this project studying transnational digital repression. But no one is studying that.

DTR: What do you think everybody missed about that? For some reason I haven’t read very much about it. Why do you think that is?

NAJ: I believe in the first place there [are] a lot of gaps in studying the digital threats. It’s not only about studying transnational digital repression. I think what was missing when I was trying to review the literature [was] that, Okay, it’s well-known that the authoritarian regimes used to target the dissidents overseas beyond their territorial borders. But why [is] the entire world not looking at the hacking and digital threats targeting these people, trying to silence them and to make things harder for them? It was the main missing point.

On the other hand, there is this misunderstanding around people who are fleeing authoritarian regimes. Once they cross the territorial borders of these countries and arrive in liberal democracies, there’s this assumption that they would be safe. But look at all of these reports and this data. The reality is telling us otherwise.

DTR: Is there a specific gendered aspect to digital expression in Canada?

NAJ: Yeah, absolutely. In our report we interviewed about six female [subjects] and absolutely, there was a very obvious gender dimension of the digital transnational repression. For instance, one of these ladies was telling us about [how] her personal photo was being taken and fabricated on Photoshop to be like naked photos. And then she was in a conference — she was one of the organizers — these naked photos of her were being distributed to all participants.

The other ones, the attacks targeting them were like misogynists language or gender-based violence — these sorts of digital attacks, the smear campaigns. One participant told [us] that because of her activism against the authoritarian regime, someone on Instagram wrote a long poem describing how he’s gonna rape her. And considering that in certain communities, sex is still stereotyped, it will have absolutely [have] an impact — not only on the mental health and wellbeing of these female individuals, but also about how much support they can have from their own community. So this woman might have further consequences, maybe similar to the consequences of that women who survived sexual violence in Syria might face. No one knows, and this is why it’s super harmful.

DTR: When was the last time you got something on your phone that you found worrisome?

NAJ: Like, last week.

DTR: Wow.

NAJ: Yeah, I always have my own precautions, but I’m always anxious about the possibility. For me, the risk is not only being targeted by the Syrian regime, but any authoritarian regime. I can’t think about one day [when] I felt 100% safe. [There are] things that I can see on my phone — like suspicious links, phishing attempts and so on. But again, there is the everyday fear and anxiety about, yeah, it’s possible to be targeted by Pegasus or any other spyware.

DTR: I want to contrast the psychological difference between getting threats online and facing this online harassment versus what you actually lived through in Syria. Is it in a way more insidious because you know that regimes may be inside your personal devices that may be in your pocket? How is it different?

NAJ: Yeah, I remember when I started realizing what the regime could do if the hack attempt had succeeded. They could have access, literally, to everything. Not only to my personal data — because when they arrested me, they had access to my device, and I always used to keep my passwords and all my email accounts with someone abroad. But once the threat could be in your device, in your pocket, in your mobile phone, you can’t have control.

I remember when I was in detention and under torture, in the interrogation I was able to make control on the information I would tell. I have this control on everything, how much information I feel like it’s safe to share with them. But when it comes to the transnational digital repression and having a spy in your pocket, taking this spy everywhere — even to your bed, your very personal meetings, very personal talks — it’s like something you can’t have control over. What’s the sense of safety and security while we are having this commercial spyware technology in the hands of authoritarian regimes?

DTR: So how do we fix this?

NAJ: Oh, we need to reset the system! It’s not easy because we need to name it. We need to keep encouraging officials to address the digital transnational repression in their day-to-day speech. They need to recognize it and [shape] their policies according to that. I think some kind of baby steps are being taken by the Biden Administration. It’s a good first step, but we need more. And it’s so important to support the victims in all means, including the psychosocial support and other means to how they can feel protected in Canada and elsewhere.

You know, this morning I had a very tough discussion with my daughter. She’s four years old and she knew about a new family, Syrian refugees [who] recently arrived in Canada. And she was trying to understand their story. Ok, They left Syria because it’s not safe. They left everything behind and they came to Canada because it’s safe. And it was tough for me to look in her eyes and assure her that Canada is safe. Because being through this and other kinds of fears of the consequences and the impacts of digital transnational repression — and listening to all of these stories of 18 participants we interviewed who are dissidents in Canada like me — it’s so hard to assure my little one that we are safe in Canada.

Dina Temple-Raston is the host and executive producer of the Click Here podcast as well as a senior correspondent at The Record. She previously served on NPR’s Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology, and social justice and hosted and created the award-winning Audible Podcast “What Were You Thinking.” She was a longtime foreign correspondent for Bloomberg News in China and served as Bloomberg’s White House correspondent during the Clinton Administration. She is the author of four books, including “The Jihad Next Door: Rough Justice in the Age of Terror,” and “A Death in Texas: A Story of Race, Murder and a Small Town’s Struggle for Redemption.”

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