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Spyware's threat to democracies


We've been reporting on the wave of mass protests in places like China, Iran and Russia in recent months, places where citizens have taken to the streets in defiance of their government's deep hostility to that kind of dissent. But a recent piece in Foreign Affairs outlines a terrifying new trend that could thwart movements like this - the use of spyware to track individuals. And it's not just autocratic regimes. According to political scientist Ronald Deibert, democratic countries are beginning to rely on this software, too. And because this technology is largely unregulated, he argues that's likely to get worse.

Deibert directs the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. His group tracks cyberespionage around the world. NPR's Michel Martin sat down with him to talk about his piece in Foreign Affairs, which is entitled "The Autocrat In Your iPhone: How Mercenary Spyware Threatens Democracy." And he began by explaining why this software is becoming more common as a way to track dissent around the world.

RONALD DEIBERT: The industry that we're describing here has evolved over the last decade, I would say, and it's kind of paralleled the rise of digital technology and consumer applications and especially the move towards always-on, always-connected mobile devices. Most of us carry with us one or more devices at all times, and they're really the focal points of our lives. And as we become more dependent on them and as they become integral to just about everything that's done today, there has been a need that has emerged from principally government security agencies to get inside those devices to find out what people are doing. And over time, the techniques that have been used have evolved, as well, to become far more sophisticated and less easy to detect, especially by the targets themselves.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: But you raise the larger concern that this isn't just about dictators in countries where we know that autocrats already rule. You say this is a threat to kind of liberal democratic order, period, writ large.

DEIBERT: That's correct.

MARTIN: But I guess the question I have is - because clearly, your warning is not just that this is a technology that dictators are attracted to. You're saying that the lack of regulation makes this attractive to democratic countries. I mean, do we have evidence that democratic countries are using this on their own citizens?

DEIBERT: We do, actually. We have a number of cases arising from our research and from other organizations that do similar research like ours of really Watergate-style scandals in places like Spain. We uncovered a massive domestic espionage operation involving this type of spyware directed against Catalan civil society and the Catalan government - Hungary, Poland. Greece is in the midst of a scandal because of the abuse of this type of technology. You know, there is a legitimate use case that you can make. The world is a dangerous place. We need law enforcement to do their job. But if they have this extraordinary great leap forward in sophistication, we need to make sure that there are appropriate checks and balances in place, which, frankly, in most countries, is not the case.

MARTIN: But why should individuals care? Because you can imagine where some people would say, I'm not doing anything wrong. I don't care if the government knows what's in my contacts, or I need my government to protect me from terrorists. And therefore, these agencies should be using this however they want. So I'm just going to ask you, why should individuals listening to this conversation care about this?

DEIBERT: For two reasons. One is, it is true that we want law enforcement, state agencies to protect us. That's part of their function - public security. But we don't want them to abuse power. In a liberal democracy, you have certain guardrails precisely to prevent the consolidation of power and the abuse of power. And we have certain rights that are usually enshrined in our laws - civil liberties that we need to protect - put in place checks and balances, usually some kind of independent oversight to check to make sure that they're not stepping outside of their appropriate lanes.

In terms of individuals, why should you care? I'm not doing anything wrong. Well, the problem is that bad people don't care whether you're innocent. I could spend hours describing one victim after another that we've encountered in our research who is doing absolutely nothing wrong and yet has been spied upon by an autocrat or a corrupt ruler because they want to get access, say, to that person's close relative, who is the principal target.

If you look at Jamal Khashoggi, we were able to determine that his fiancee and several of his close colleagues' devices were hacked. Essentially, everyone with whom he was communicating about his activism was under surveillance by Saudi operatives using this type of surveillance technology. Those people - largely innocent. Some of them may have been largely apolitical. So this type of thing can happen when there aren't guardrails in place, especially when you're dealing with such a sophisticated capability as this. A mere push of the button - you can access any phone. It's extraordinarily tempting to have that power in front of you if no one is watching.

MARTIN: That was Ronald Deibert, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, where he directs the Citizen Lab. We've been talking about his piece "The Autocrat In Your iPhone: How Mercenary Spyware Threatens Democracy," and it's published in Foreign Affairs. Professor Deibert, thanks so much for joining us today. It's a disturbing conversation, but thanks for sharing this reporting with us.

DEIBERT: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.