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Commentary: Human rights defenders exposed to excessive repression in cyberspace

'Human Rights Defenders in Cyberspace: A Litmus Test for Cybersecurity', 11 May 2021

Compromised accounts, device confiscation, censorship, surveillance, excessive monitoring – these are some of the threats in cyberspace with the potential to violate human rights. But not everyone is affected equally with their consequences. Human rights defenders have been pre-eminently targeted by their adversaries and opponents. They have witnessed human rights concerns being translated into threats to psychological and even physical security... Phishing and targeted malware are the most popular methods of digital attack due to their inexpensive and low-tech means, and the possibility of being customised on individuals (spear phishing) or efficiently deployed on a large scale... An Amnesty International investigation revealed similar methods being used in Uzbekistan, describing “(…) a campaign of malicious emails using fake websites along with Windows and Android spyware embedded in legitimate software”... An earlier investigation documented targeted phishing attacks against HRDs in the Middle East and North Africa... Spyware attacks against HRDs have been identified in Mexico in 2017, Vietnam from February 2018 to November 2020 and India in 2019... [C]ensorship measures can be introduced or expanded through legislation, often under the pretext of strengthening national security, and in cooperation with tech companies. Such has been the situation in Vietnam, where the cybersecurity law protects the regime’s monopoly on power rather than ensuring network security. It has been also reported that Facebook and Google “geo-block” content critical of the authorities, which becomes invisible to anyone accessing the platform in the country. In November 2019, Facebook revealed a 983 per cent increase in content restrictions based on Vietnamese legislation, as compared with the previous reporting period, while YouTube has been praised by Vietnamese censors for its relatively high rate of compliance with censorship demands. These practices target HRDs, but also journalists, activists, dissent, and other non-conformist groups. In its consequences, securitised legislation violates the right to freedom of expression and universal access to information and introduces a state of insecurity instead...