Citizen spy fights to uphold our rights

Vancouver Sun
Saturday, June 28, 2008

by Daphne Bramham

A professor from Vancouver says what was once an open global space is now being carved up, colonized and militarized. From TheVancouverSun

In many countries, Ron Deibert would be considered a traitor or a terrorist. Under some circumstances, he might even be considered one in Canada.

Deibert is a citizen spy, singled out as a hero to people who care about human rights and civil society by such diverse publications as Wired and Esquire.

Born, raised and educated in Vancouver, Deibert runs the Citizen Lab at the University’s of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies. It’s described as “an interdisciplinary research and development hothouse working at the intersection of the Internet and human rights.”

Deibert is also co-founder and a principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative, a research and advocacy project that examines Internet censorship and surveillance worldwide. And he directs the Psiphon censorship circumvention software project.

“What we’ve done implicitly is borrow the methods and organizational structure as well as the technical and human-based intelligence that is used by state and national security forces. We’re the global or civil society counter-intelligence organization,” he said in a telephone interview before taking off for Thailand.

He’s there to teach activists and journalists in Southeast Asia how to use the Psiphon software to do things like send video via cellphone — video of demonstrations, police crackdowns and so on that would never get past some governments’ censors

If you only use the Internet to do e-mail and share family photos, you probably haven’t thought much about barriers and spies in cyberspace. But Deibert figures we all should.

“We have many urgent problems — global degradation, weapons of mass destruction and so on. We have increasingly finite political spaces and those are becoming even smaller. With that as a starting point, it seems to me that there is an obvious need for some kind of global place where citizens can share information and communicate.

“The Internet once held the promise of becoming the global public space … but it is being carved up, colonized and militarized. We need to protect this forum where ideas can be exchanged freely because it is quickly being lost.”

When Deibert testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission last week, he talked about American firms’ role in China’s control of the media. He said that not only do some software firms write the blocking programs, American search-engine companies such as Google, Yahoo! and MSN may be worse than the Chinese government when it comes to suppressing information.

Deibert and his colleague Nart Villeneuve have found wild variations between the number and kind of sites that Google blocks versus what Yahoo! and others do.

The companies do what Deibert calls “anticipatory over-blocking, in which content not officially blocked by China ends up being filtered because of the eagerness of search engines.”

It’s partly because of China’s purposeful vagueness, which could also be an issue for foreign journalists covering the Beijing Olympics. In the journalists’ “service” guide, tucked between warnings not to bring poisonous snakes or “big white mice,” journalists are forbidden from importing “printed matters, tapes and A&V discs, storage media for computers and other articles which are harmful to the political, economic, cultural and moral interest of China.”

It sets a minefield even for those who want to be compliant.

Deibert is skeptical that China will live up to its contract with the International Olympic Committee that guarantees journalists unfettered access to the Internet during the Games. It’s more likely, he says, that China will do just enough to give outsiders the impression of compliance.

At official Olympic sites, foreign journalists will likely be given IP — Internet Provider — addresses that will be recorded and passed on to the routers. The routers will be instructed to allow those IPs through the censors.

But Deibert suspects that foreign journalists who wander from the hard-wired Olympic sites to cafes or even cities not hosting Games events will run into the censors.

Of course, China has already unblocked BBC’s English website, garnering favourable news stories. But Deibert says the Chinese site remains blocked, suggesting that, during the Olympics, English-language sites dealing with sensitive subjects — the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, Falun Gong and Taiwan’s independence — will be open, but the Chinese ones won’t.

After the Games, Deibert is under no delusion. The great wall will rise again.

It’s because of that kind of censorship that the Citizen Lab’s hackers have developed free software to get around the filters, allowing journalists, human rights activists and others to send and receive sensitive material as well as collect information on what governments are trying to keep secret.

It’s risky business. Deibert won’t be specific, but some Psiphon users have been jailed in countries with the most pervasive Internet censorship — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Burma, Vietnam and China.

Cyber-dissidents disappear or are jailed all the time. More than 30 are in jail in China. Earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders reported the kidnapping of Huang Qi, who runs the human-rights website 64Tianwang in Sichuan. A few day earlier, retired university professor Zheng Honling was arrested. Both Huang and Zheng have posted Web articles critical of the government’s handling of food aid following last month’s earthquake.

But it’s not just China. Since the OpenNet Initiative began its monitoring in 2004, every year governments of all political persuasions have made the free flow of information more difficult and put more energy into spying on their own citizens’ Internet use.

They are not China and Uzbekistan, but Canada and the United States block, censor and spy on their citizens as well.

In Canada, Deibert says, there is “a considerable degree of surveillance and it is largely unaccountable. It’s part of the U.S.-led electronic intelligence cooperation that is rarely talked about.”

American telecommunications companies are required by law to install the capacity for police, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Central Intelligence Agency to eavesdrop on all their traffic. And since seven of the nine biggest telecom operators in the world are American, well, you get the picture.

More ominously, Deibert says the American government is openly talking about taking down any information source, anywhere in the world, that’s strategically threatening to its interests.

More than 20 civil suits are pending in the United States by individuals — mainly Muslim, Middle Eastern or South Asian — who had laptops, cellphones or other electronics seized by U.S. Homeland Security, which subsequently duplicated the information on those devices.

At least one court has already ruled that it’s legal for agents to search and seize electronics without suspicion, just as they’re allowed to search your purse or briefcase.

Yet, ironically, the U.S. government is warning its citizens travelling to the Beijing Olympics that their laptops may be targeted by Chinese government spies hoping to steal business and trade secrets.

So while there can be good reasons for some filters and spying — child-luring and child pornography are two — pretty quickly, the line blurs between what is in the public interest and what is a serious privacy breach.

Little more than 30 years ago a U.S. president was forced from the White House for tapping phones and planting bugs in his enemies’ office.

Yet these days, Deibert and his lab mates are considered mavericks for defending the value of liberal democracy and civil society that our governments were elected to uphold.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008