Global Civil Society Under Attack

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Access reviews and analyzes serious risks facing global civil society and the ways to combat them.

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With authoritarian governments using increasingly sophisticated and subtle forms of online repression, we need to raise a red flag to activists and their allies, so they can better prepare for in 2012.

From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movements, 2011 witnessed an incredible expansion of the use of the internet for social activism and change. But less frequently reported are the increasing cyber-attacks on human rights activists. From communications blackouts, to Denial of Service attacks, to the use of Western technology to track down political dissidents, activists of all stripes were at incredible risk in 2011, according to a new report released today by Access titled “Global Civil Society At Risk: An Overview of Some of the Major Cyber Threats Facing Civil Society.”

“The events over the past year should serve as a global wakeup call to human rights activists and their allies. Civil society is very much under attack online, and the threats that we saw in 2011 are only going to increase in the coming year,” said Brett Solomon, Executive Director of Access. “It is imperative that we shine a light on the dirty practices of repressive regimes and equip civil society to defend against these attacks which would otherwise silence their voices.”

According to Access in 2011, as members of civil society increasingly used the internet to organize, authoritarian governments responded by deploying new technology, exercising control over internet infrastructure, and sharing worst practices to manipulate the communications of their people. With a depth of information security knowledge, skill, and experience in short supply, civil society is now facing an unprecedented challenge when it comes to secure and trusted communications.

Access has identified some of the most significant threats currently faced by civil society, which include:

Communications Blackout: In 2011, the government of Egypt disconnected the country from the internet for five days. Iran announced a plan to disconnect the country from the worldwide internet and replacing it with a nationally controlled “Halal Internet.” In San Francisco, transportation authorities cut off cell phone coverage to prevent protests.

Denial of Service Attacks: DoS are difficult-to-identify attacks that flood a site with data requests so legitimate requests can’t get through, paralyzing a website's capacity to communicate with the world and rendering it inoperable for extended periods. In 2011, DoS attacks were often perpetrated at moments of heightened political activity such as elections.

Blocking and Filtering: Authoritarian governments are increasingly using filtering technology to keep their people behind a firewall, preventing them from accessing sites like independent news agencies, social networks, and search engines.

Use of Surveillance Technology: In 2011, there were several high-profile cases of Western-made surveillance technology being sold to repressive regimes, which was then used to monitor and hunt down activists. These technologies, in use in places like Syria and Iran, include the interception, decryption, and storage of all electronic communications sent by activists and civil society.

"As the internet enables populations to converse, inform and organize, we see social change unfolding before our very eyes," said Gustaf Björksten, Access Technology Director. "But with authoritarian governments using increasingly sophisticated and subtle forms of online repression, we need to raise a red flag to activists and their allies, so they can better prepare for in 2012.”

The full report can be found at https://www.accessnow.org/civil-society-at-risk

Access is an international NGO that promotes open access to the internet as a means to free, full and safe participation in society and the realization of human rights. To learn more visit http://AccessNow.org

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