Chasing Circles


We are publishing a new Citizen Lab report today, entitled “Running in Circles: Uncovering The Clients of Cyberespionage firm Circles,” authored by Bill Marczak, John Scott-Railton, Siddharth Rao, Siena Anstis, and Ron Deibert


The global telecommunications ecosystem upon which we are all heavily dependent was not invented from scratch with a single well-thought plan. Instead, it went through successive waves of evolution over decades, intensifying in more recent years as new digital and mobile technologies have been invented. Security has been ad hoc, fragmented and reactive as a result, leaving a hodge-podge of legacy standards and protocols in place some of which are still open to serious exploitation.

Arguably the most significant of these is something called SS7, a protocol developed in 1975 to handle interoperability among wireline telecommunications firms. Back in the ‘70s — prior to the deregulation and privatization measures that swept through the worldwide industry — the telco marketplace was a much different place. It was more like an old boy’s club (and in many respects, still is). There were far fewer firms, and most of those in existence were either state-owned, crown corporations or utility-like monopolies. (The UK’s telco at the time, for example, was entirely state-run and was quaintly called “Post Office Communications”).

Ironically, SS7 was rolled out in 1975 to solve a preexisting flaw in existing “in-band” interoperability protocols that were at the time being exploited by so-called “phone phreaks” using “blue boxes” (instructions for which they shared in popular magazines) to hack their way into free long-distance phone calls. (A young Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, infamously used one such blue box to make a long distance phone call to the Vatican posing as Henry Kissinger and asking to speak to the Pope).

To solve this problem (and protect revenue) SS7 was created as a new “out-of-band” signal protocol. SS7 has remained in place ever since, principally because there’s a lot of older equipment and systems still out there that require some means to function properly. SS7 is still predominantly used in 2G and 3G mobile networks, and even later generation 4G / 5G networks are susceptible to security issues because they need to interconnect with SS7 networks to work for everyone. One of its central functions today is to handle billing and other services as subscribers roam from one network to another network when they travel internationally.

The SS7 protocol’s “authentication” (such as it is) has relied mostly on trust among a small group of insiders. But as the global telco market rapidly diversified and numerous companies of all shapes and sizes have entered into the arena, SS7 has become ripe for exploitation. Access to the SS7 network can allow a malicious actor to track virtually any target’s location, and intercept voice calls and text messages (which, incidentally, can also be used to intercept codes used for two-factor authentication sent via SMS). 

In 2017, a joint investigation undertaken by CBC News and Radio Canada, in cooperation with German security researchers, demonstrated an SS7 attack against a sitting Canadian member of parliament. With only a telephone number, the investigators were able to use SS7 vulnerabilities to track the MP’s movements and intercept his calls over two separate Canadian telco networks. 

Although high-end nation-state intelligence agencies have been quietly benefiting from SS7’s weaknesses for a long time (thanks to their cozy relationships with their national telcos), privatization and deregulation have opened the door to a whole new array of entrants into that club, including criminals and cyber-surveillance firms.


Our report focuses on one such firm, a company called “Circles,” which was reportedly founded in 2008, and is known for selling systems to government security services to exploit SS7 vulnerabilities. (The company was acquired in 2014 by private equity firm Francisco Partners, who merged it with NSO Group — another regular on the Citizen Lab’s research radar for surveillance abuses). 

Circles’ operations are difficult to investigate and track. Unlike some other types of targeted surveillance, exploiting SS7 vulnerabilities does not leave traces on a target’s device for investigators like ours to discover. Up until recently, what little was known about Circles came from leaked documents or investigating reporting on a few country clients, like Nigeria

Our report opens for the first time a very large window into Circles’ global customer base.

Led by Citizen Lab senior researcher, Bill Marczak, we discovered that Circles’ installations on customers premises leave a distinguishing fingerprint associated with the Check Point firewall that it employs. With that fingerprint as our starting point, we used internet scanning methods, and gathered data from various sources and feeds to identify specific country clients. 

In total, we are able to determine that 25 governments and 17 specific government agencies are likely Circles’ customers: 

Australia, Belgium, Botswana (Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services), Chile (Investigations Police), Denmark (Army Command), Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala (General Directorate of Civil Intelligence), Honduras (National Directorate of Investigation and Intelligence), Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico (Mexican Navy; State of Durango), Morocco (Ministry of Interior), Nigeria (Defence Intelligence Agency), Peru (National Intelligence Directorate), Serbia (Security Information Agency), Thailand (Internal Security Operations Command; Military Intelligence Battalion; Narcotics Suppression Bureau), the United Arab Emirates (Supreme Council on National Security; Dubai Government; Royal Group), Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

A major theme of our work on the commercial surveillance marketplace is how a lack of controls around sales of these technologies to government clients with poor human rights and a lack of public accountability leads to major human rights abuses. Several of Circles’ government clients we identify above are especially disturbing in this regard. For example:

  • We determined that the Security Operations Command (ISOC) of the Royal Thai Army, a unit which has allegedly tortured detainees, is a Circles client.
  • We identified a Circles’ system operated by the Investigations Police of Chile (PDI). Chilean police have a checkered history around extra-legal surveillance against journalists and political opposition. 
  • We identified a single Circles system in Guatemala that appears to be operated by the General Directorate of Civil Intelligence (DIGICI). The DIGICI has used surveillance equipment to conduct illegal surveillance against journalists, businesspeople, and political opponents of the government. Guatemala is presently in the midst of large public protests against government corruption.
  • We identified ten Circles’ deployments in Mexico. Citizen Lab’s prior research has shown Mexico’s government has serially abused NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to target reporters, human rights defenders, and the families of individuals killed & disappeared by cartels.
  • We identified a Circles’ installation in Nigeria that is likely operated by that country’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). A recent report by Front Line Defenders concluded that Nigeria’s government “has conducted mass surveillance of citizens’ telecommunications.”
  • Our scanning identified what appear to be three active clients in the UAE: the UAE Supreme Council on National Security (SCNS) (المجلس الأعلى للأمن الوطني), the Dubai Government, and a client that may be linked to both Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s Royal Group and former Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan.

It should be emphasized that Circles’ technology can be deployed against targets both domestically and abroad. In other words, the international reach afforded by Circles’ services allows despots and autocrats to silently target political opposition who may have gone into exile in foreign jurisdictions — a continuation of disturbing trends around transnational repression the Citizen Lab’s research is closely following. Some of the government clients we identified have been suspected of organizing extraterritorial targeted killings of dissidents and political opposition figures.

Unfortunately SS7 exploits are very difficult to guard against. In our report, we urge lawmakers, industry groups, and telecommunications companies to take immediate and meaningful steps to mitigate the long-standing technical weaknesses in SS7. We also urge high risk individuals associated with any of the countries listed above to migrate away from SMS-based two factor authentication immediately for all accounts where it is possible.

Read the full report here:

Globe and Mail Opinion: COVID and Tech Insecurity

I published an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail. The link is here and I’m pasting the entire article below.

The pandemic has made us even more dependent on a highly invasive technological ecosystem




Ronald J. Deibert is director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School, the 2020 CBC Massey lecturer and the author of Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society.

My son is an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia. Like many of his peers, he has seen his classes move online – and so have their exams.

Students in his program were recently required to consent to a remote exam invigilation software platform manufactured by a company called Proctorio. As with most tech companies, work-from-home measures and social isolation have been a boon to Proctorio: more than 2.5 million exams were proctored by the company in April, 2020, alone, a stunning 900-per-cent increase compared with April, 2019. Other companies in this space – such as ExamSoft, Examity and ProctorU – are enjoying similar surges in demand.

Once installed on a student’s device, applications like Proctorio can monitor students’ keystrokes, capture and record anything on their screens, track their web browsing, and even turn on cameras and microphones to record students’ faces, their surroundings and ambient sounds for evidence of cheating. Proctorio’s proprietary algorithms flag what it detects as “suspicious behavior” to faculty or teaching assistants (TAs) for follow up.

My son said using Proctorio made him feel “creeped out” and uncomfortable. Who can blame him?

It’s one thing to have a TA strolling up and down the aisles of an exam room. It’s quite another to force students to install spyware that tracks everything from their keystrokes to retina movements, sending that data down a mysterious black hole. Imagine having an omniscient, invisible robot looking over your shoulder, staring into your eyeballs, scrutinizing every movement, and scanning your bedroom – the entire time you’re taking an exam. Who could concentrate in those conditions? And yet, he had no choice: The course makes it mandatory.

As it turns out, my son is relatively fortunate. He is white, male, has a good WiFi connection, has no disabilities and lives alone. Many other students are not so fortunate, and pay a high price for it. As I dug deeper into Proctorio and other remote surveillance exam software platforms like it, I unearthed a litany of horror stories – most of them affecting students that were already disadvantaged or marginalized.

For example, Black students and other students of colour have reported authentication delays and even outright rejection by remote proctoring applications because of “poor lighting” or “camera position.” Flaws in the software’s facial recognition systems – technology that is notoriously bad at recognizing dark skin tones – is the more likely answer.

Students who experience facial tics have reported anxiety about being flagged for cheating, having spent the entire exam trying to suppress involuntary movements. Even those without disabilities have trouble with tools like Proctorio. On social media, students – some in tears – describe failing exams because the software flagged them for mouthing the questions or looking around their room while thinking, behaviour the system interprets as talking to someone offscreen.

Low-income students with shared living spaces and caregivers recount similar feelings of anxiety, worried that they’ll be flagged because of nearby noise. One student did her best to tune out her 12- and eight-year-old siblings banging on the door for the duration of the exam, siblings for whom she is the primary caregiver.

Beyond these discriminatory effects are even more serious concerns. A system that spies on students’ homes and bedrooms will almost certainly amplify risks of stalking and sexual harassment. It would never be appropriate for a professor or TA to roam around a student’s bedroom, but Proctorio and the like invite them in … by design.

Digital proctoring platforms (as with so much else of our big tech world) seem to presume their users are mostly white, affluent people with high-speed internet and free from crowded houses or caregiving responsibilities. They assume that they can protect students from abuse by making users subscribe to its terms and conditions. All assumptions that are proving to be highly questionable.

When it comes to digital technologies and COVID-19, by far the vast majority of discussion has focused on contact-tracing applications. Although important, this narrow focus has obscured more fundamental and far-reaching effects at the intersection of digital technology, surveillance and pandemic response. While we fixate on the merits of this or that app, we’ve been missing out on an entire landscape shifting beneath our feet.

Largely without public debate – and absent any new safeguards – we’ve become even more dependent on a technological ecosystem that is notoriously insecure, poorly regulated, highly invasive and prone to serial abuse. It’s like building a second floor addition on our homes without fixing the rotting infrastructure. Eventually, it will all come crumbling down – or slowly make us sick.

Consider Amazon. The company’s success amid COVID-19 becomes obvious just by staring out the window at the invasion of delivery vans perched on sidewalks and parked in bike lanes, delivering packages to makeshift home offices.

Once a startup reseller of books and DVDs, Amazon has become the corporate embodiment of globalization and surveillance capitalism. With shops and malls mostly shuttered, Amazon’s online services have exploded. Chief executive Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, saw his personal wealth grow by US$50-billion in the first six months of the pandemic alone.

But that sudden growth only exacerbates Amazon’s existing pathologies. They include the company’s predatory pricing, monopolistic practices, and dismal labour conditions for its warehouse and delivery personnel. These so-called “flex” workers lack health care or other benefits and are subject to extensive surveillance, including navigation software, wristbands, security and thermal cameras (likely as much for the prevention of union organizing as for “security”). The company is also responsible for the proliferation of Ring, a notorious home security system associated with racial profiling and warrantless data-sharing with law enforcement, as well as its vast, wasteful and highly polluting “data farms” (which power streaming video services such as Prime and Netflix) – graded “F” for energy transparency by Greenpeace in 2017.

Meanwhile, tech startups of all shapes and sizes – often with dubious qualifications – are trying to capitalize on the growing demand for technology to spy on workers at home (dubbed “bossware”), bust unions, enforce productivity, monitor symptoms, police physical distancing, detect emotions and, yes, invigilate exams remotely. This bewildering array of new digital bracelets, electronic ankle monitors, immunity passport apps, fever detection goggles, drones, thermal cameras, and video- and audio-capture systems are not subject to extensive auditing or built to protect privacy. Instead, many are the digital equivalent of “snake oil” looking to make quick cash on the rapidly expanding surveillance economy.

This explosion of pandemic-era applications will invariably amplify the defects of the mobile marketing and location tracking industry – a sector made up mostly of bottom-feeder companies whose business model relies on collecting billions of user-generated data points, later sold and repackaged to advertisers, law enforcement, the military, customs and border agencies, and private security services (not to mention bounty hunters and other dubious characters). A shocking number of entrepreneurs and policy makers are nonetheless turning to this cesspool of parasitic firms – poorly regulated and highly prone to abuses – as a proposed pandemic solution.

The entire ecosystem presents a bonanza for petty criminals, ransomware opportunists, spyware firms and highly sophisticated nation-state spies alike. Meanwhile, law enforcement and other state agencies – already growing accustomed to reaping a harvest of digital data with weak judicial oversight – will enjoy a bounty of new and revealing information about citizens without any new safeguards to prevent abuse of that power.

Some argue that this COVID-19-era innovation cycle will pass once there is a vaccine. But the more we embrace and habituate to these new applications, the deeper their tentacles reach into our everyday lives and the harder it will be to walk it all back. The “new normal” that will emerge after COVID-19 is not a one-off, bespoke contact-tracing app. Rather, it is a world that normalizes remote surveillance tools such as Proctorio, where private homes are transformed into ubiquitously monitored workplaces and where shady biometric startups and data analytics companies feed off the footloose biosurveillance economy.

There undoubtedly are positive aspects of digital technologies. But, as presently constituted, those benefits are far outweighed by the many long-term negative consequences that we are risking without serious public debate, and which will almost certainly come back to haunt us as this “new normal” settles in.

What’s the alternative? A different approach would use the historic crisis that the pandemic presents as an opportunity for a reset and to rethink the entire technological ecosystem from the ground up. For far too long, data surveillance companies have been largely insulated from government regulations. But this has come at a major social cost and with numerous unintended consequences. With digital technologies now a “lifeline” and an essential service for many who must adapt to both working and living at home, consumers and citizens have a right to demand more. What might those demands entail?

First, and most importantly, we need to clean up the cesspool of free-wheeling data broker, advertisement and location-tracking companies. New laws should be passed to give users real power and restrain how tech companies gather, process and handle their personal information. This includes meaningful and easy to understand “opt-in” measures, rules to minimize the type of data collected to specific and justifiable purposes, and better avenues for users to sue companies that transgress those laws. In particular, legislation should permit consumers to restrict the use of geolocation data by third parties, prohibiting targeted advertising to users visiting therapists, clinics and other “none-of-your-business” activities.

Second, the rights of “flex” workers, independent contractors and other “gig economy” workers need meaningful legal protection. Big tech platforms and other businesses should not be able to use COVID-19 as an excuse to spy on workers in warehouses, factories, rental cars and homes, or to clandestinely monitor their social-media feeds to disrupt labour organizing. Big tech CEOs and their shareholders should also be compelled to use the newfound prosperity they are reaping thanks to COVID-19 to improve their employee’s lives. It is both grotesque and unethical that the Jeff Bezoses of the world can lap up skyrocketing personal wealth while their front-line workers experience layoffs, longer hours, fewer benefits, disproportionate health risks and dehumanizing surveillance measures.

Third, tech platforms should be legally required to open up their algorithms and other proprietary technology to outside scrutiny and public interest audits. The giants of surveillance capitalism hold enormous power over our lives, including over the choices we make, the products we purchase, the news we see and the people with whom we associate. These platforms have increasingly become essential to just about everything we do, and they should no longer be able to operate as “black boxes” whose inner workings are obscured to all but a select few. It’s time to pry open the lid of the technologies that surround us.

Lastly, there’s something all of us can do. We’ve all become habituated to seeking technical solutions for complex social and political issues. And while technologies can produce enormous benefits, we’ll need a lot more than a few new gadgets to solve the problems of our time. We must resist the temptation to reflexively look to “apps” and “platforms” when there may be other more traditional and ultimately more enriching ways to organize our lives, respond to social problems and accomplish our goals.

Unlike many other industrial sectors, the tech platforms have emerged from the pandemic stronger and are already positioning themselves as indispensable to public health. It’s time to hold them, and all of us, to account for it.

RESET: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society


I am really excited to be the 2020 CBC Massey LecturerIt was a great honour to be invited and be among the great authors and thinkers who have inspired me over the years, including MargaretAtwood, Ursula Franklin, Jane Jacobs, Charles Taylor, and so many others.

The lectures will be virtual this year, broadcast on CBC Ideas, November 9-13,  with the final episode airing November 16th, with host Nahlah Ayed. (November 17th update: you can listen to all six lectures here:

I had two principal aims in writing RESET: the first was to summarize what I see as an emerging consensus about the many pathologies of social media and the organization of our entire communications ecosystem; the second was to lay out a principled framework for what to do about them.

RESET is published in the United States and Canada with House of Anansi Press, and in the United Kingdom by September Publishing. Thanks to Misha Glenny, Ziya Tong, Marietje Schaake, Cory Doctorow, and Edward Snowden for the very generous reviews!

“No one has done more than Ron Deibert and his lab to expose the enemies of the internet — shadowy companies whose sole business is to make it unsafe for all of us. No one is better placed to explain the intersection of law and technology that makes these abuses possible — and how we can put an end to them. Reset is the definitive narrative of where we went wrong and a last chance to make things right.” — Edward Snowden

“Tech is at a crossroads between oppression and liberation, and Ronald J. Deibert is our leading expert on the forces steering it in either direction. Reset is a road map revealing the secret alleys and byways that brought us to this juncture, and the ways ahead that we could navigate to a better future.” — Cory Doctorow, bestselling author of Radicalized and Walkaway

“One thing is for sure: your phone knows a lot more about you than you know about it. Ronald J. Deibert expertly cracks open our gadgets and electronics to reveal the who, what, and why behind our communications infrastructure. From digital espionage to big-data policing, Reset is a timely and critical look at how cutting-edge surveillance technologies are being weaponized against civil society. With the rise of authoritarianism around the world, Deibert’s book is a must-read for all who want to ensure that dark power stays in check.” — Ziya Tong, science broadcaster and author of The Reality Bubble

“Ronald J. Deibert is a rare hybrid who combines an advanced understanding of computer technology with a rich background in political science. He is also already a legend in security and tech circles because of his work as the founder and director of Citizen Lab . . . In Reset, Deibert outlines with tremendous economy and verve the major threats that face us as a consequence of our rapidly growing dependency on internet technologies, AI, robotics, and, further down the line, machine-to-machine learning and quantum computing. The clarity of his writing enables Deibert to categorize each aspect of the threat on a profound level that will nonetheless be accessible to any reader . . . Covid-19 has made it clear that our globalized world faces fundamental challenges to the survival of our species, along with most others. If we listen to Ron Deibert, we are still in position to head off another of those threats.” — Misha Glenny, bestselling author of McMafia and DarkMarket

“A reset is needed in the relation between privately run technologies and the public interest. Ron Deibert sketches what meaningful change looks like. Ron has been at the heart of analyzing the harms of technology to human rights, and increasingly to the human condition, for decades. His deep research and clear moral compass make his plea for a ‘reset’ an urgent one. To technology experts this book shines a clear light forward beyond current headline-grabbing incidents. To readers new to the depth of effects of the online information ecosystem, it is essential reading to gain clarity on where our values are at stake, and how we may preserve them.” — Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director of the Cyber Policy Center, Stanford University, and President of the CyberPeace Institute

Reset is a shocking call to action and a persuasively argued book. It is the sort of text one hopes will be read widely … After all, a reset of the basic infrastructure of life will only come through a profound political reckoning — and like the foment of 1968, it may just be a reconceptualization of what we want and why we want it that finally drives change.” — Quill & Quire

Testimony Given to the House of Commons on Parliamentary Duties and the COVID-19 Pandemic

The following is testimony provided by Ronald Deibert to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) on April 29, 2020.

I am Ron Deibert, Professor of Political Science and founder and director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. Our research at Citizen Lab includes investigating digital espionage against civil society, documenting Internet filtering and other technologies and practices that impact freedom of expression online, analyzing privacy, security, and information controls of popular applications, and examining transparency and accountability mechanisms relevant to the relationship between corporations and state agencies regarding personal data and other surveillance activities. I submit these comments in a professional capacity representing my views and those of the Citizen Lab.

As much of the world moves into work-from-home rules and self-isolation, technology has become an essential lifeline. However, this sudden dependence on remote networking has opened up a whole new assortment of security and privacy risks. In light of these sudden shifts in practices, it is essential that the tools relied on for sensitive and high risk communications be subjected to careful scrutiny.

In what follows, I first provide a summary of the Citizen Lab’s recent investigation into the security of Zoom’s video conferencing application, and the company’s responses. I then discuss a broader range of digital security risks that are relevant to the work-from-home routines that MPs and their staff are following. Finally, I conclude with six recommendations.1

Citizen Lab Research on Zoom Security

On April 3, 2020, the Citizen Lab published a report on a technical analysis of the confidentiality of communications on the popular video chat application Zoom.2 On April 8, we released a followup report with details of a security vulnerability in Zoom’s waiting room feature.3

Our initial report found that the encryption in Zoom did not seem to have been well-designed or effectively implemented, and that its public documentation made several misleading claims about Zoom’s encryption protocols that did not match what we observed in our analysis. I invite those with interest to see the full details as outlined in our report.4

We also found potential security issues with Zoom’s generation and storage cryptographic information. While based in Silicon Valley, Zoom owns three companies in China where its engineers develop the Zoom software. In some of our tests, our researchers observed encryption keys being distributed through Zoom servers in China, even when all meeting participants were outside of China. A company primarily catering to North American clients that distributes encryption keys through servers in China is very concerning, given that Zoom may be legally obligated to disclose these keys to authorities in China.

In our report published on April 3, we noted that we also discovered a security issue with Zoom’s “waiting room” feature. Specifically, we found Zoom servers provided both the encryption keys and a live video stream of the Zoom meeting to all users in the meeting’s waiting room, even if the waiting users had not been approved to join the meeting. This issue would enable an arbitrary, unauthorized Zoom user in a waiting room to intercept and decrypt the “encrypted” video content.

In response to our research and concerns raised by other parties, Zoom has taken a number of actions regarding security.5 Zoom has committed to a 90-day process to identify and fix security issues, including a third-party security review, enhancing their bug bounty program and preparing a transparency report.

In direct response to our research, Zoom acknowledged the concerns we raised about their use of non-industry standard encryption and committed to making improvements, including working towards the implementation of end-to-end encryption. Zoom also acknowledged that some Zoom users based outside of China would have connected to data centres within China, and indicated they had immediately put in place measures to prevent that from happening.

On April 8th, Zoom released a new version of their client that added additional security features. Zoom CEO Eric Yuan indicated in a video webinar that this new version fixed the waiting room security issue we identified.6 He also announced that Zoom had established a CISO Council and Advisory Board to assist with their privacy and security practices, and had hired former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos as an advisor.

It is important to underscore that we did not test Zoom’s HIPAA/PIPEDA-compliant healthcare plan, or the ZoomGov software that is used by some government agencies. These platforms would require additional analysis.

While it is encouraging that Zoom is working to improve their product, the sudden reliance by a very large number of people on a platform that was never designed for highly-sensitive communications is symptomatic of a much larger set of problems related to work-from-home routines.7 It is imperative that we evaluate all of the risks associated with this sudden change in routines, and not just those associated with one particular application.

Security Risks Related to Work-From-Home Environments

Legislators working from home are connecting using devices, accounts and applications through widely differing home network setups, as are their staff. These networks may be shared with roommates and family members, whose own digital security practices could collaterally affect their own security, and the devices which are being used are likely loaded with applications that can access large volumes of sensitive information. Whereas in the pre-COVID era, these devices were routinely brought back into the government’s security perimeter where sensors might detect aberrant network behavior, this will no longer be the case. Consequently, adversaries might linger on networks and devices indefinitely, and obtain more data from targets than in a pre-COVID world.

The communications systems that we rely on have rarely been designed with security in mind. Security has either routinely been regarded as slowing the speed of innovation or impossible to impose on essential systems that have chronic failings and which would require total redevelopment of communications infrastructures to become “secured.” The consequence is that there is a vast array of unpatched systems that leave persistent vulnerabilities for malicious actors to exploit. These risks extend right down into the most fundamental layers of our shared infrastructure. For example, telecommunications and cell phone networks still rely on a decades-old information exchange protocol, called SS7, that has been shown to be highly insecure and prone to abuse and illegal surveillance, including when sending second-factor authentications over mobile phone networks.8

Meanwhile, governments and criminal enterprises have dramatically increased their capabilities to exploit this ecosystem for a variety of purposes. Almost all nation-states now have at least some “cyber espionage” capabilities, with many in the top-tier being exceedingly well-resourced and routinely spending billions of dollars on clandestine influence and intelligence-gathering operations. There is a vast and poorly regulated private market for cyber security that includes numerous companies that provide “off-the-shelf” targeted espionage and mass surveillance services.9 Citizen Lab’s research has shown that the market for commercial spyware in particular is proflierating widely, and is highly prone to abuse (including being linked to targeted killings),10 with sophisticated hacking tools ending up in the hands of despots and dictators.11 These relationships may well open the door to the same tools being deployed against legislators and their staff in jurisdictions like Canada. As a result, the government must be wary of seemingly less competent adversaries punching well above their weight by using private and commercial hacking tools.

At the best of times, these problems present extraordinary challenges for network defenders. But parliamentarians and their staff are now at even greater risk. Not surprisingly, threat actors are already capitalizing on this new environment. Phishing and malware attacks have targeted and disrupted hospitals in the Czech Republic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the World Health Organization. On April 14, a leading U.S. cybersecurity firm revealed that a “Canadian government health organization actively engaged in COVID-19 response efforts, and a Canadian university conducting COVID-19 research,” had been victims of ransomware attacks.12 These reports are likely only scratching at the surface.

While it is laudable that a platform like Zoom has received a lot of attention about security risks, we should not lose sight of the fact that our entire communications ecosystem contains numerous insecurities, and that there are a multitude of bad actors searching for and seeking to exploit them.

Recommendation #1: Where possible extend digital security resources developed for the House of Commons (HoC) to all Canadians

Remote work for the HoC will require a significant investment in additional digital security support, resources, and capacity. These teams were already engaged in actively protecting members of the HoC and are now dealing with a significantly broader set of home network and device setups, while simultaneously defending against a tsunami of targeted malware and other attacks that are outside of the government’s formal security perimeter.

To partially combat new threats, the CSE’s Canadian Centre for Cyber Security has begun sharing information with infrastructure providers to reduce the likelihood of phishing or malware successfully exploiting devices and systems.13However, the details of this program (and others like it) presently lack public accountability or transparency, and it has not been independently audited. If these are rolled out without proper safeguards, such systems can end up undermining free expression, privacy, and other rights. Wherever possible, the HoC and the rest of government could share mitigation techniques or signatures to Canadian infrastructure owners in a transparent and accountable way to both improve the home security of MPs and HoC staff, as well as all other residents of Canada.

Additionally, distributing and encouraging the use of educational tools to all parliamentarians, their staff, and all residents of Canada could help boost awareness and help mitigate risks.14

Recommendation #2: Evaluate and issue guidance on work-from-home best practices, including those for video conferencing applications.

The Government of Canada should issue detailed guidance on work-from-home best practices that includes a detailed evaluation of video conferencing applications. The latter could include recommendations on scenarios for use of some applications for specific purposes but not others. Such guidance could be made available to Canadians to assist medium and small businesses, as well as individual residents of Canada, make decisions that are informed by security expertise from the government. Although some guidance has been issued already,15,16these are dated, and largely insufficient to the tasks at hand.

By way of contrast, the U.S.’s NSA has issued public guidance that identifies various criteria to consider when using a video conferencing service.17 These criteria include, inter alia, whether the service uses end-to-end encryption; whether they share data with third parties; and whether or not the service’s source code has been shared publicly. Other assessments consider questions of transparency and privacy, for example whether firms issue transparency reports or have clear privacy policies.18

Recommendation #3: Support independent research on digital security and the promotion of secure communications tools.

At a time when daily life significantly depends on technological systems, there should be more high quality, independent research that scrutinizes these systems for privacy and security risks. To assure Canadians that the digital appliances and networks upon which they depend are secure, researchers must have the ability to dig beneath the surface of those systems, including into proprietary algorithms, without fear of reprisal.

Presently, researchers can come under legal threat when they conduct this research, to the detriment of improving security for all users, including MPs and their staff who are at home. As such, we recommend that the Government of Canada pass legislation which explicitly recognizes a public interest right to engage in security research, and prohibits organizations or individuals from legally threatening residents of Canada who are involved in such public interest research.

Recommendation #4: Implement a Vulnerability Disclosure Process for Government Agencies, including the House of Commons

Vulnerabilities disclosure policies (VDPs) establish terms and processes by which researchers can communicate the presence of vulnerabilities in organizations’ systems or networks without fearing legal repercussions. American institutions, such as the Department of Defense,19 have already adopted a VDP and additional American institutions are developing them. Canada should follow this model, so that researchers can identify and work with the government of Canada to mitigate vulnerabilities, instead of declining to communicate them out of fear they may experience legal (or other) threats. This recommendation is in line with a report issued by the HoC Public Safety and National Security Committee in 2019, where it recommended that “the Government of Canada support responsible vulnerability disclosure programs.”20

Recommendation #5: Transparent and Accountable Vulnerabilities Equities Process

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) currently has a process by which it evaluates whether to conceal the presence of computer software vulnerabilities for use in its own intelligence operations, or to disclose a given vulnerability to ensure that all devices are made secure from it. However, the CSE is formally alone in making decisions over whether to retain or disclose a vulnerability.

We recommend that the Government of Canada broaden the stakeholder institutions who adjudicate whether vulnerabilities are retained or disclosed, especially in light of the enhanced risk that all government workers are at given their work-from-home situation. We also recommend that the Government of Canada follow international best practice and release a full vulnerabilities equities process policy, so that residents of Canada can rest assured that the CSE and its government will not retain vulnerabilities that could seriously compromise the security of Canadians.

Recommendation #6: Support for Strong Encryption

In 2019, the HoC Public Safety and National Security Committee recommended that “the Government of Canada reject approaches to lawful access that would weaken cybersecurity.”21 Given the potential for adversaries to take advantage or poorly-secured devices and systems, we recommend that the Government of Canada support the availability of strong encryption so that MPs, their staffs, and residents of Canada can be assured that the Government is not secretly weakening this life-saving and commerce-enabling technology, to the detriment of all Canadians and our allies.

  1. Thanks to Christopher Parsons, Lex Gill, and Josh Gold for comments and assistance.
  2. Bill Marczak & John Scott-Railton, “Move Fast and Roll Your Own Crypto: A Quick Look at the Confidentiality of Zoom Meetings,” The Citizen Lab, April 3, 2020,
  3. Bill Marczak & John Scott-Railton, “Zoom’s Waiting Room Vulnerability,” The Citizen Lab, April 8, 2020,
  4. In our report of April 3, we found that Zoom documentation claimed that the app uses “AES-256” encryption for meetings where possible. However, in our testing, a single AES-128 key was used in ECB mode by all meeting participants to encrypt and decrypt audio and video. The use of ECB mode is not recommended because patterns present in the plaintext are preserved during encryption. What this finding means is that the encryption in Zoom does not seem to have been well-designed or implemented.
  5. Colleen Rodriguez, “Zoom Hits Milestone on 90-Day Security Plan, Releases Zoom 5.0,” Zoom Blog, April 22, 2020,
  6. “Ask Eric Anything,” (YouTube Video), Zoom, April 8, 2020,
  7. See John Scott-Railton, “Another Critical COVID-19 Shortage: Digital Security,” Medium. March 23, 2020,
  8. Stephanie Kirchgaessner, “Revealed: Saudis suspected of phone spying campaign in US,” The Guardian, March 29, 2020,
  9. For further detail, see testimony by Ron Deibert on this subject to the Senate of Canada on November 30, 2016, here:
  10. Research by The Citizen Lab has revealed several cases of targeted killings linked to targeted espionage and surveillance software, including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi. For further information on this, and other cases, see for example: Miles Kenyon, “Dubious Denials & Scripted Spin: Spyware Company NSO Group Goes on 60 Minutes,” The Citizen Lab, April 1, 2019,
  11. Bill Marczak, John Scott-Railton, Sarah McKune, Bahr Abdul Razzak, and Ron Deibert, “Hide and Seek: Tracking NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware to Operations in 45 Countries,” The Citizen Lab, September 18, 2018,
  12. James McLeod, “Canadian coronavirus response workers targeted in ransomware attack, says U.S. cybersecurity report,” Financial Post, April 14, 2020,
  13. Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, “Canadian Shield – Sharing the Cyber Centre’s Threat Intelligence to Protect Canadians During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” April 23, 2020,
  14. Some resources to consider include the Citizen Lab’s Security Planner ( and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self Defense project (
  15. Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, “Considerations when using video-teleconference products and services,” April 3, 2020 (amended April 14),
  16. Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, “Cyber Hygiene for COVID-19,” March 18, 2020,
  17. Existing assessments of various video teleconferencing applications could be built on. See, for example, guidance from the US National Security Agency issued on April 24, 2020: (
  18. See, for example, assessments by Freedom of the Press ( and Google engineer Gary Belvin (
  19. Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center, “DoD Vulnerability Disclosure Program (VDP), November, 2016,
  20. SECU, “Report 38: Cybersecurity in the Financial Sector as a National Security Issue”, Adopted by the Committee June 17, 2019, See recommendation 7, page 38.
  21. SECU, “Report 38: Cybersecurity in the Financial Sector as a National Security Issue”, Adopted by the Committee June 17, 2019, See recommendation 8, page 39.
  22. Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel, and Masashi Crete-Nishihata, “Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media,” The Citizen Lab, March 3, 2020,

Endless Mayfly: an invasive species in the social media ecosystem

Bring up the topic of social media and state-sponsored disinformation, and most people think reflexively of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. As the Mueller report recently affirmed, Russian entities operated a sweeping and systematic social media “active measures” campaign designed to sow division and support Donald Trump leading up to the election.

But what may be less appreciated is just how many other actors in countries and regions all over the world are now undertaking social media influence operations, each with their own unique objectives, flavour, and style. In India, for example, citizens “are bombarded with fake news and divisive propaganda on a near-constant basis from a wide range of sources.” In Myanmar, it is now widely acknowledged that Facebook was used to incite genocide. Throughout Africa, hoaxes, disinformation, and spoofed articles circulate so widely that they are now commonplace; one study found that an alarming 38% of Kenyans, 28% of Nigerians, and 35% of South Africans surveyed acknowledged having shared stories which they knew to be fake.

Indeed, it is fair to say that social media has quickly become what Citizen Lab’s John Scott-Railton has described as a giant “disinformation laboratory.” Multiple actors in just about every region of the world are now experimenting with new techniques to sow disinformation, spread inauthentic narratives, project power and influence, and undermine adversaries. Given this new reality, it is imperative that researchers carefully dissect as many different disinformation operations as can be found to better understand the innovations in tactics, techniques and procedures in this quickly evolving terrain.

Enter “Endless Mayfly.” Endless Mayfly is the name we have given to “an Iran-aligned network of inauthentic personas and social media accounts that spreads falsehoods and amplifies narratives critical of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel.”

Endless Mayfly is but one among many invasive species in the social media ecosystem. What distinguishes it from others, however, is a technique we dubbed “ephemeral disinformation.” Endless Mayfly publishes content on websites they create that impersonate legitimate media outlets, like Le Soir, or the Guardian, using a variety of typosquatting and domain spoofing techniques (e.g., bloomberq[.]com instead of bloomberg[.]com).

Inauthentic personas managed by Endless Mayfly, with names such as “Brian Hayden” or “Mona A. Rahman,” then attempt to amplify the content over social media, by circulating them on their own, or by privately and publicly engaging journalists and others over social media.

But Endless Mayfly’s real innovation comes in the form of its use of ephemerality. Once Endless Mayfly’s carefully constructed content achieves some degree of social media pickup, the spoofed articles are permanently deleted and the links are altered to redirect to the legitimate domain being impersonated.

Click on the link to one of Endless Mayfly’s inauthentic Guardian articles, for example, and after a period of time a user is taken to the legitimate Guardian website instead.

What happened to the original article? “Perhaps it’s the Guardian’s fault?” one might wonder. Who’s to say? In our data-saturated, always-on world, who has the time to find out? Endless Mayfly’s operators appear to be banking on social media users’ short attention spans and our inclination to trust headlines associated with what appear to be credible sources, rather than dig deeper to verify facts from the ground up ourselves.

In total, we found Endless Mayfly created 72 of these fake domains, many of which were used to host 135 of their inauthentic articles. Some of these domains the operators appear to have kept in reserve for future operations, like theglobalandmail[.]org (instead of .com), which was registered by Endless Mayfly but not employed in a specific campaign.

Did it work? It is difficult to measure whether this technique had much of an impact. Quantitatively, engagement with the links to their various articles, accounts, and personas was modest at best. But on several occasions, Endless Mayfly’s inauthentic content was picked up by mainstream media, creating significant confusion. In one instance, for example, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum stumbled upon part of Endless Mayfly’s operation and wrongly attributed it to yet more Russian malfeasance.

In terms of our own attribution, we determine with moderate confidence that Endless Mayfly is linked to Iran. This level of confidence is based on “the overall framing of the campaign, the narratives used, and indicators from overlapping data in other reports.” In terms of the latter, in August 2018 accounts and pages associated with Endless Mayfly were deactivated by Facebook in coordination with FireEye, and FireEye traced back registration information and other indicators to Iranian origins. But beyond that circumstantial evidence, we have no “smoking gun” that proves Endless Mayfly is an operation run by the Iranian state itself.

The technique of ephemerality pioneered by Endless Mayfly presents major challenges to researchers, policymakers, and others hoping to investigate and mitigate disinformation operations. Deliberately hiding one’s tracks in this way makes it harder to pin down, analyze, and trace the origins of a malicious campaign, let alone verify the truth-claims and other content that may be getting social media traction. If it becomes a popular tool in the disinformation toolkit, it could sow serious short-term confusion in social media spaces.

In the end, Endless Mayfly’s biggest accomplishment may not be around its principal objective, which was apparently to undermine Iran’s adversaries. It may have more to do with contributing in yet one more way to the ongoing poisoning of our social media public sphere.  

When it comes to cyber security, it is usually the technological layer that gets the most attention, like risks to critical infrastructure and other technical systems. But what about the social and cultural layer? In fact, it may be in this layer where the most intense geopolitical struggles and malicious experimentations are taking place. Given the properties of social media — which as presently constituted favor lewd, salacious, and shocking information — it may also be the layer that is most challenging to defend.

We have no simple remedy to the problems that operations like Endless Mayfly poses, other than to undertake more research, refine our methods, and collaborate with others to better understand the evolving terrain of social media disinformation. To that end, alongside our report, we are publishing a major disinformation research bibliography compiled and annotated by Citizen Lab fellow Gabrielle Lim.

Read the main report here:

Our annotated bibliography of disinformation research is here:

Citizen Lab on 60 Minutes

Doing the “60 Minutes Stroll” with correspondent Lesley Stahl

Last week, 60 Minutes broadcast an episode entitled “Pegasus” focusing on the controversies surrounding Israeli-based commercial spyware vendor, NSO Group. The episode profiled Citizen Lab’s work, and featured interviews with myself and my Citizen Lab colleague, Bill Marczak.

My Citizen Lab colleagues and I published an analysis of the episode today, highlighting some revelations and providing some broader context.

Read our post here:

And in case you missed it, the full episode and transcript is available online here:


Another Journalist in Mexico a Target of NSO Group’s Spyware


Today, Citizen Lab is publishing a new report, entitled “Reckless VII: Wife of Journalist Slain in Cartel-Linked Killing Targeted with NSO Group Spyware.” This report continues our investigation of the abuse of commercial spyware manufactured by Israeli company NSO Group. Working with our partners in Mexico, we are now able to confirm that Griselda Triana, a journalist and the wife of Javier Valdez, a journalist who was assassinated while investigating Mexican cartels, was herself targeted with fake SMS messages in the days after her husband’s murder. The SMS messages she received in May 2017 purported to reveal details about the motive behind the murder, and other upsetting updates. We were able to connect the links in both messages to domains that we can verify were at the time part of NSO Group’s exploit infrastructure. Although she did not click on the links, doing so would have immediately infected her phone with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, providing the operators complete control of her device. Notably, she was targeted a week after two of Javier’s colleagues were also targeted with Pegasus spyware.

The targeting of Griselda Triana brings the total number of confirmed NSO Group targets in Mexico to 25. NSO Group markets its spyware as a tool strictly limited to government agencies to assist in anti-terror and criminal investigations. None of the 25 targets we identified were criminals or terrorists; rather, they were anti-corruption investigators, advocacy groups, health scientists and researchers, investigators into mass disappearances, and journalists.

NSO Spyware in Mexico: Claims vs Reality

It is notable that NSO Group has bragged about how its Pegasus spyware was used in Mexico to investigate drug cartels and was instrumental in the arrest of El Chapo. However, here we find it was used the other way around: to target individuals who were investigating drug cartels and government corruption. These cases add yet more weight to the mountain of evidence that NSO Group’s surveillance technology is being abused by its clients, and the company is either unwilling or unable to perform the type of due diligence to prevent that from happening.

Tackling The Proliferation of Commercial Spyware

What is to be done about the proliferation and harm caused by commercial spyware such as this? Many point to the need for government regulations, such as tighter export controls. But lacking political will, these are unlikely to be properly enforced. As it stands, NSO Group’s sales are reportedly approved by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, and they did not seem to take issue with the company selling its wares to a rogue’s gallery of autocratic rulers in spite of widespread public reporting of abuse.

Litigation is another avenue that might help bring about reform of companies’ practices. For example, NSO Group is currently embroiled in several lawsuits. Should those succeed and the company is fined or otherwise penalized in a significant manner, ownership groups may decide the liabilities are too steep to continue with business as usual. (As a significant aside, several weeks ago two Citizen Lab staff were targeted by undercover operatives reportedly with links to the Israeli-based private intelligence firm Black Cube. We organized a counter-sting with Associated Press to expose the operation. NSO Group strictly denies it hired Black Cube (if indeed it was them), and we have no solid evidence linking them to the operation. However, the operatives asked us about our research on the spyware vendor and they also attempted to entrap four other individuals around the world all of whom happen to be linked by their involvement in litigation against NSO.)

Communications with NSO Group

We have communicated several times to NSO Group, its previous majority owner, Francisco Partners, and the new ownership group who is seeking to acquire NSO Group, Novalpina Capital, led by Mr. Stephen Peel. The new group has made public statements espousing principles of corporate social responsibility, and has pledged to steer NSO Group sales according to the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights. However, they have systematically failed to acknowledge the numerous cases of abuse that we and others, including Amnesty International, have identified. Until they do so, these pledges will sound like the same old empty promises that NSO Group, and other spyware companies, have made in the past about “ethics committees” and other oversight mechanisms that allegedly review sales and prevent abuse. It is long past due to turn words into deeds, to acknowledge the facts and undertake real reform to prevent harm.

Submission of the Citizen Lab to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

In 1993, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights established the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The current Special Rapporteur is Mr. David Kaye.

Mr. Kaye recently issued a call for submissions on the topic of the surveillance industry and human rights. The call noted that government and non-governmental actors have increasingly used digital surveillance technologies to undermine human rights and sought information on regulatory frameworks for surveillance technologies, on the use of surveillance technologies against individuals and civil society, and on the policies and practices of private companies in this industry.

Over the years, Citizen Lab research has documented the abusive deployment of spyware manufactured and sold by private companies. Our submission first provides a review of our technical research into the application of sophisticated spyware technology sold by NSO Group Technologies Ltd., Cyberbit Ltd., FinFisher GmbH, and Hacking Team S.r.l (a subset of our research on targeted digital threats). Based on this research, and investigations by other organizations into the spyware industry, we have identified a number of overarching practices of concern within the industry that we believe urgently need to be addressed:

  1. The apparently unchecked sale of spyware to authoritarian and repressive governments with poor human rights records;
  2. The justification of such sales by private companies on the basis that they sell exclusively to sovereign nations and with the sole purpose of clients engaging in lawful use;
  3. A non-transparent business environment which insulates companies in the industry from public scrutiny and effective regulation; and,
  4. Private companies in this industry operating in violation of norms and rights set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In order to assist the Special Rapporteur, we have also articulated a number of recommendations which we hope will inform the Special Rapporteur’s forthcoming report. These recommendations stress the importance of continued support for research into the spyware industry and the need to identify and define high priority practices of concern within the industry, as well as the broader aims of industry reform. Further, we recommend that the Special Rapporteur issue a report describing a comprehensive accountability framework that considers the effectiveness and changes necessary to all available mechanisms for ensuring accountability (e.g. regulation, litigation, due diligence requirements for companies, and export controls) and call on States to do more to protect against human rights in this area with specific actions that should be taken.

The full report can be found here.

Slain Mexican Journalist’s Colleagues Targeted With NSO Spyware

Photo Source: ContraLí

Javier Valdez Cárdenas was an award-winning Mexican investigative journalist known for his reporting on drug trafficking and organized crime. As with dozens of other investigative journalists in Mexico, Cárdenas’ brave reporting ended up having lethal consequences. On May 15, 2017 around noon, Cárdenas was forcibly removed from his vehicle and gunned down on the street, steps away from the offices of Río Doce, the newspaper he founded.

Our latest Citizen Lab report shows that in the days after his death, two of Cárdenas’ colleagues at Río Doce — Andrés Villarreal and Ismael Bojórquez — each received carefully crafted text messages on their iPhones containing links to highly sophisticated surveillance technology sold by Israeli-based “cyber warfare” company, NSO Group. Had they clicked on the links, the operators of the spyware would have been able to silently take over their devices and monitor everything they do, including intercepting emails, text messages (even those encrypted), turn on the camera, and silently record audio.

NSO Group claims that they sell their powerful surveillance technology only to governments to be used strictly for legitimate law enforcement and national security investigations, and have a strict oversight mechanism to ensure their technology is not abused. They also claim that they have rescinded sales to clients who are caught abusing their product. (As is customary, we sent NSO Group a letter prior to publication detailing the findings of this report and offering to publish their response in full, but we have received no reply).

Instead, as this latest case and numerous past reports we and others have published show, their technology is being used repeatedly to target members of civil society, including lawyers, health scientists, human rights defenders, activists, and journalists. These two additional targets bring the total number of individuals we (and our Mexican civil society partners R3D, Article19, and Social Tic) have been able to identify who were targeted with NSO Group spyware in Mexico to 24. None of them are either criminals or terrorists by any reasonable, rights-respecting legal standard.

Of particular concern with this latest report is yet more evidence of the abuse of NSO Group spyware to specifically target journalists and those associated with journalists. The targeting of Cárdenas’ colleagues mere days after his assassination suggests the operators were interested in what the journalists knew about who was responsible. Our prior reporting has shown several other Mexican journalists investigating murders or corruption were targeted with NSO Group spyware in much the same way. In one case, the minor child of Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui was repeatedly sent text messages laden with NSO Group spyware links in an attempt to infect his phone — while he was attending boarding school in the United States.

Beyond Mexico, there is now growing evidence that NSO Group’s spyware was also potentially implicated in the murder of exiled Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On October 1, 2018, we published a report detailing our discovery that the iPhone of Canadian permanent resident Omar Abdulaziz was infected with NSO Group spyware. Forbes followed up our report showing that London-based Saudi dissident Ghanem Almasarir had his phone targeted by the same Saudi operator we had earlier identified as targeting Omar Abdulaziz. Notably, both Omar Abdulaziz and Ghanem Almasarir were collaborating with Jamal Khashoggi around social media activism, and were reportedly viewed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as major threats.

The reckless and abusive use of commercial spyware to target journalists, their associates, and their families adds to the numerous and growing risks that journalists worldwide now face. Media organizations and investigative journalists are valuable “soft” targets who control important information, including information on sources, that threaten powerful actors. Thanks to companies like NSO Group, unscrupulous dictators and autocrats now have a powerful tool to aid in their sinister aims to stifle dissent and quell controversial reporting.

What is to be done? Unfortunately, liberal democratic governments who ostensibly support human rights and could take concerted action against the proliferation of commercial spyware seem unwilling to address the problem squarely. For example, in spite of the Citizen Lab’s discovery of apparent espionage by Saudi Arabia against a Canadian permanent resident using Israeli-made spyware — seemingly a significant violation of Canada’s sovereignty — the Trudeau government has only barely acknowledged our report possibly out of concern to not offend either Israel or Saudi Arabia (with whom Canada has weapons deals). Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s constant maligning of the press as the “enemy of the people,” and his decision to throw Khashoggi under the bus in favour of naked realpolitik calculations, shows clearly where the United States stands.

What about Israel, the sovereign jurisdiction in which NSO Group is headquartered? Earlier this week, Haaretz published a detailed investigation showing NSO Group may have sidestepped Israeli government export controls and negotiated a sale with Saudi Arabia directly. Revelations such as these may trigger greater scrutiny by the Israeli public and official regulators to strengthen export controls that are apparently very lax, if not ineffective altogether. However, in light of the close links between the Israeli government and the surveillance industry, and the strategic benefits that undoubtedly accrue to Israeli decision makers from the export of such technologies, I wouldn’t hold my breath in hope of something happening there either.

But the lack of government action does not mean there are no avenues left for recourse. The growing number of cases of harm caused by the abuse of commercial spyware we and others have documented may provide strong grounds for civil litigation and / or criminal prosecution. Indeed, NSO Group is currently facing two separate lawsuits (one of which was brought by Mexican journalists and activists), and one of its competitors, UK-based Gamma International Ltd, is the subject of another in the United Kingdom.

Should these legal efforts succeed in bringing real costs to bear on owners, they may prove to be the most effective remedy for the abuses of the commercial spyware market.

Until such time, we are now facing a crisis rich in terrible irony: a service marketed to government clients to assist in “cyber security” is quickly becoming one of the greatest sources of widespread insecurity instead.

Saudi-linked Cyber Espionage Against Canadian Victim Discovered

Figure 1: The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia to Canada (September 2018; Credit: Ron Deibert)

Today, the Citizen Lab is publishing a major new report, “The Kingdom Came to Canada: How Saudi-Linked Digital Espionage Reached Canadian Soil,” by Bill Marczak, John Scott-Railton, Adam Senft, Bahr Abdul Razzak, and myself.

Our report details how we discovered Canadian permanent resident and Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz was targeted with a fake SMS message and his phone infected with spyware manufactured by Israeli-based “Cyber Warfare” company, NSO Group. We attribute this infection to a spyware operator linked to Saudi Arabia.

The research for this report builds on our recently published “Hide and Seek” report, led by the Citizen Lab’s Bill Marczak, in which we detailed the results of more than two years of Internet scanning into NSO Group’s command and control infrastructure. That scanning revealed more than 45 countries in which we found infected devices “phoning home” to NSO Group’s infrastructure, operated by more than 30 likely government clients — many of them with highly problematic human rights issues.

Among those live infections was a particularly noteworthy one: a Saudi-linked operator, which we call KINGDOM, monitoring an infected device in Quebec, Canada. The surveillance of a victim in Canada is particularly intriguing as it takes place in the midst of a serious diplomatic dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia that was triggered by tweets critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record sent by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland, and by the official Twitter account of Global Affairs Canada.

Based on Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights track record and its prior history of abuse of spyware (including by the very same KINGDOM operator), we hypothesized that the target in Quebec would be a person or group connected to Saudi political activism. We then reached out to contacts in the Saudi diaspora and human rights communities to try to identify the target. Remarkably, we succeeded.

Omar Abdulaziz is a Canadian university student, and a prominent Saudi activist who sought and received asylum in Canada in 2014 after Saudi Arabia revoked his scholarship for his outspoken criticism of the regime.  Omar produces a very popular satirical talk show on YouTube that is followed by millions of viewers. He was also featured prominently in media coverage of the Canada-Saudi dispute, including on CBC’s The Current. During his interview on that show, Omar claimed Saudi authorities had threatened his family to try to discourage him from speaking out.

Earlier this summer, Omar received a fake DHL courier notification via SMS. The message arrived only hours after he placed an order on Amazon. When we met with Omar, we searched back through his SMS messages with his consent against a list of known NSO domains we had gathered, and discovered the fake DHL notification SMS. We were able to confirm that he was, indeed, targeted by the KINGDOM operator and that the SMS he received contained a link to the NSO Group’s “Pegasus” spyware infrastructure.

Further verification that Omar was the victim came from matches were able to make to his pattern of life. Our scanning showed the infected device moving between two Quebec-based networks at very specific intervals — Vidéotron and RISQ (Réseau d’informations scientifiques du Québec). Omar confirmed that those “check ins” precisely matched his movements between his home wifi network (Vidéotron), and the wifi network to which he connected during a regular evening activity (RISQ).

NSO’s Pegasus spyware is extraordinarily stealthy and invasive. Once a target clicks on a link, the operator has complete surreptitious control over the target’s device. This control includes being able to silently read emails and chat messages, including those that are encrypted, capture ambient sound, and turn on the camera. During the time Omar’s device was infected, several of his family members and friends disappeared in Saudi Arabia. Although we have no way to confirm it, it is certainly possible these disappearances are the direct result of the KINGDOM operator’s surveillance of Omar’s phone.

No doubt, this revelation of Saudi-linked espionage against a Canadian permanent resident will inflame the already tense Canada-Saudi diplomatic dispute. If it does, it will illustrate one major theme of Citizen Lab’s research: that the unregulated commercial spyware market produces costly negative externalities. It is also noteworthy that what we have unearthed may violate several Canadian Criminal Code offences, including willfully intercepting private communications contrary to section 184(1).

It should go without saying that the multiple cases of abuse we have uncovered over several years cast serious doubt on NSO Group’s claims about a “Business Ethics Committee” and other controls they have over their products. While they may treat it frivolously, NSO Group’s accumulating liabilities must be giving its ownership group, US-based investment firm Francisco Partners, serious cause for concern, particularly since the latter has unsuccessfully shopped NSO Group to potential buyers for a reported 1 billion USD.  Who wants to buy a company whose services routinely end up being abused, inflaming geopolitical tensions, or implicated in criminal conduct? What potential liabilities does NSO’s reckless sales present for its ownership group?

This case also illustrates yet again another major theme of our research: in the absence of controls to the contrary, powerful surveillance technology sold to governments for anti-terror or criminal investigations will inevitably be used by corrupt and autocratic rulers to target journalists, dissidents, human rights defenders, research scientists, and other members of civil society they deem a “threat.” Like Ahmed Mansoor of the United Arab Emirates and numerous other targets of spyware we have discovered, Omar Abdulaziz is neither a terrorist nor a criminal. His only “crime” is hosting what is the equivalent of The Daily Show for the Gulf region directed at a regime that brooks no dissent.

It is probable the cases we have reported on at Citizen Lab are but a tip of the iceberg. If so, numerous members of civil society are — right now — being unwittingly surveilled and effectively neutralized by their adversaries. Should these espionage attacks against global civil society continue unabated, democracy itself will be at growing risk.  

Read the full report here: