2017 CLBR Hero: Ronald Deibert, the Robin Hood for Cyber Threats

On December 20, CLBR will have our annual year-end Heroes and Zeros episode in which, with guests Brenda Christensen, Denise Howell and Dan Tynan, we highlight those doing wonderful things on the internet and those deserving a cyber lump of coal.  This year, in order to give credit (and shame) where it is due,  I am naming my hero and zero “nominees” individually and my next hero is Ronald Deibert, founder of The Citizen Lab.

The Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, focusing on research, development, and high-level strategic policy and legal engagement at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security.  For years, The Citizen Lab has been focusing on the sale of “dual use” information and communication technologies to repressive regimes for censorship or surveillance purposes.

As a recent Motherboard article explained;

In the last decade, despite only having a core group of around 15 people working on its research full time, Citizen Lab has uncovered evidence of government espionage within the Dalai Lama’s network; lifted the lid on Western companies that quietly sell spyware used by police and intelligence agencies to target dissidents and human rights activists in MoroccoBahrainEthiopia and many other countries; and revealed the existence of a new powerful Chinese censorship system. These are just some of the lab’s most famous reports.

This has earned Citizen Lab a reputation s “the Robin Hood amongst threat intelligence.”

In 2013, we featured Sarah McKune to discuss their report on Blue Coat Devices (PLANET BLUE COAT: Mapping Global Censorship and Surveillance Tools). In 2017, The Citizen Lab uncovered the use of surveillance software to spy on journalists and dissidents in Ethiopia, Mexico, Panama and elsewhere.  As Deibert explained in a recent Wired column:

Governments like Ethiopia no longer depend on their own in-country advanced computer science, engineering, and mathematical capacity in order to build a globe-spanning cyber espionage operation. They can simply buy it off the shelf from a company like Cyberbit. Thanks to companies like these, an autocrat whose country has poor national infrastructure but whose regime has billions of dollars can order up their own NSA. To wit: Elbit Systems, the parent company of Cyberbit, says it has a backlog of orders valuing $7 billion.

This month, Citizen Lab released its report COMMERCIAL SPYWARE: The Multi-billion Dollar Industry Built on an Ethical and Legal Quagmire.

In sum, our latest report adds yet more evidence to the long list of cases involving the abuse of powerful dual-use surveillance technologies. Yet again, we have uncovered a company’s products and services—ostensibly sold to assist in law enforcement and national security investigations—used by repressive governments to target critics of the regime instead. As more governments develop an appetite for these products and services, we expect to uncover more troubling cases such as these. Mitigating these issues will require a comprehensive review of legal, regulatory, and corporate social responsibility measures by governments and the international community.

Ronald Deibert


Web: Citizen Lab  / Tw: @RonDeibert and @citizenlab 

Ron Deibert is Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. He was a co-founder and a principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative (2003-2014) and Information Warfare Monitor (2003-2012) projects. Deibert was one of the founders and (former) VP of global policy and outreach for Psiphon, one of the world’s leading digital censorship circumvention services.

Deibert was named among Esquire Magazine’s “Best and Brightest List” of 2007, listed among SC Magazine’s 2010 top “IT Security Luminaries”, and in 2017 named one of the top “Humans of the Year” by VICE and given a 2017 Global Thinker Award by Foreign Policy Magazine.   In 2013, he was appointed to the Order of Ontario and awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal, for being “among the first to recognize and take measures to mitigate growing threats to communications rights, openness and security worldwide.”

Annual Heroes and Zeros Show

Listen on Wednesday, December 20th at 1PM ET / 10AM PT on WebmasterRadio.fm as I discuss the Heroes and Zeros for 2017 with our special guests – Brenda Christensen, Denise Howell and Dan Tynan.

the judges

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