The so-called "Arab Spring" saw politically and economically disenfranchised citizens take advantage of new tools such as social media and smartphones to break the state’s monopoly on information, and mobilize mass protest. While governments were quick to employ familiar, time-tested mechanisms of repression against demonstrators in the streets and main squares, they fumbled at first in controlling this new digital dissent.
Against an increasingly security-aware online community, the traditional tools
of blocking, filtering, and wiretapping had become less effective. Nervous regimes turned to the largely unregulated $5 billion a year industry in Internet surveillance tools. Once the realm of the black market and intelligence agencies, the latest computer spyware is now sold at trade shows for dictator pocket change.
Activists and journalists soon found themselves the target of e-mails promising exclusive or scandalous information. We analyzed messages forwarded to us by suspicious users, and found spyware products apparently from Gamma International and Hacking Team, recognized players in the surveillance industry. For the first time, we analyzed their products, chasing internet addresses and shell corporations across the globe. As we published our findings, servers disappeared, and spyware was rewritten.
In this talk, we detail the cat and mouse game between authoritarian regimes and dissidents, as well as our ongoing efforts to map out the relationship between surveillance software companies and governments.
Morgan Marquis-Boire works as a Security Engineer at Google specializing in Incident Response, Forensics and Malware Analysis. He is a security researcher and Technical Advisor at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Recently, he has been working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation on issues surrounding dissident suppression in Syria.
Bill Marczak is a Computer Science PhD student at UC Berkeley working on developing new languages, abstractions, and tools for distributed
programming. Bill is also a founding member of Bahrain Watch, a
monitoring and advocacy group that seeks to promote effective,
accountable, and transparent governance in Bahrain through research and evidence-based activism.