Study: Human rights groups ‘bombarded’ with cyberattacks

Human rights groups across the globe “are being bombarded” with cyberattacks from the same state-sponsored hackers that aggressively go after government agencies and critical infrastructure.

The targeted groups range from Chinese social justice workers to Tibetan monks to Syrian activists, according to a new report from Internet rights and security researcher the Citizen Lab.

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With meager budgets and minimal defenses, these organizations make for easy targets.

The study “sheds light on an often overlooked digital risk environment,” said the researchers, based at the University of Toronto. Such attacks, they said, threaten to “extend the reach of the state … beyond borders and into safe havens.”

As one Tibetan group put it, connectivity is “this funny thing where it’s a lifeline, and then … maybe your ticket to jail.”

Governments and industry are heavily engaged in discussions about protecting themselves and critical infrastructure. 

The U.S. government has been working with major industry groups to implement a voluntary cybersecurity framework. Congress is considering cybersecurity information sharing legislation that would enable critical infrastructure companies to exchange cyber threat information with intelligence agencies.

But smaller organizations, particularly nonprofit groups, are often left out of the conversation.

Over four years, researchers tracked the cyber threats at 10 of these small, nonprofit groups.

They discovered constant, structured Chinese espionage efforts normally thought to target other governments or major industry targets.

“The years of documentation around these operations show that there are well-resourced and persistent threat actors originating from China,” the study concluded, cautioning that many of the civil society groups they worked with had missions devoted to human rights in China.

The researchers also noticed “troubling evidence” that governments, including the United States, were using “lawful intercept” surveillance tools sold by legitimate companies to monitor human rights groups, journalists and civil society organizations.

“The market for these tools is largely unregulated, which has helped the governmental customer base grow, and likely led to substantial profits for developers,” the study said.

In addition to the United States, they spotted similar surveillance efforts in the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

“Attacks like these are best understood as a form of espionage,” the study said. “Remediation of the problem will require major efforts among several stakeholders, from the foundations that fund civil society, to the private sector, to governments.”