Human rights

Canadian human rights defenders affected by foreign cyber attacks

VANCOUVER — Sarah Teich was supposed to prepare for a federal human rights case, but, rather than organizing her arguments, she had spent the four days leading up to the hearing primarily trying to secure her devices after a cyberattack.

Teich, an international human rights lawyer, says she has been the victim of hacking attempts for months. But days before a judge heard his arguments in a case arguing that the Canada Border Services Agency has the power to ban items made in China’s Xinjiang region, the attacks became particularly aggressive.

“Someone had gained access to my iCloud email address and iCloud password,” Teich said, “and was trying to either clone or remotely wipe my phone or something.”

She changed all of her passwords and got a new phone and number, and managed to organize her file on time. By mistake, she did not change the password for her Zoom account. The next day, during the court hearing for the case via Zoom in early December, she was dismissed from the appeal.

She was the only one to be thrown and once back online, the judge did not arrest her to make her case.

Teich believes her hacking attack was related to the lawsuit and the Chinese Communist Party, although she has no hard evidence, but believes the timing is more than a coincidence.

“If it’s the CCP or a CCP sympathizer interfering in a court case,” she said, “it’s the next level.

But Teich became more disheartened when she attempted to report the hack to several Canadian government agencies and it became clear to her that there was no solid device for Canadians to report suspicions of harassment or hacking. by foreign regimes.

She filed her complaint with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and even the Toronto Police, with none of the agencies offering a clear way to help or even investigate the case, she said. she declared. Only the Communications Security Establishment said it might be able to help, but it was not firm.

His plight is familiar to other human rights activists in Canada who say the country’s authorities are ineffective when it comes to dealing with the intimidation, disinformation and digital piracy attacks that activists are facing. regularly confronted.

Teich is one of the attorneys representing the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project as an intervener in a legal case in which a refugee organization is trying to have a judge declare that the Canada Border Services Agency has the power to ‘prevent items from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from entering Canada.

Human rights defenders are concerned about the endemic forced labor in the region as part of the ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people. Some reports estimate that up to two million people have been held in internment camps in the region in recent years. Reports of forced labor, torture and forced sterilization were reported by Uyghurs who left.

Beijing has denied the allegations.

Last month, the United States officially banned the import of items made in Xinjiang, forcing importers to prove they weren’t made with forced labor. The case Teich is working on ultimately wants the same policy to apply in Canada.

When she asked Mehmet Tohti of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project what to do about cyber attacks, he told her not to expect much from the authorities.

It has been hacked and threatened since around 2003, and despite filing reports and submitting evidence, authorities haven’t helped much, Tohti told The Star. Like Teich, he had also been hacked in the days leading up to the court hearing.

“You can’t get any results,” Tohti said. “There is no particular unit that tackles this kind of problem. “

He said part of the problem is the Canadian government – its political arm – doesn’t seem to understand the threat.

Almost a year ago, CSIS director David Vigneault warned that China and Russia, in particular, were targeting critics in Canada. CSIS has also published reports in the past of attempts by foreign governments to interfere with Canadian affairs and institutions.

Public Safety Canada has said the government takes threats against individuals in Canada “seriously” and the RCMP are aware of interference from foreign threats. But he would not explain the steps that must be taken to combat it.

“A variety of methods and techniques are in place to combat interference by foreign actors in the RCMP’s mandate,” said Tim Warmington, spokesperson for the department. “For operational reasons, we can’t talk about it at length, but foreign interference activity is being monitored.”

Warmington said such threats fall within the RCMP’s mandate and that the agency has a “multidisciplinary team” to deal with intimidation attempts.

But two researchers dispute that everything is done to fight against these attempts.

Noura Aljizawi and Siena Anstis are researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. The laboratory focuses on information and communication technologies and their link with human rights.

The duo interviewed 18 human rights activists in Canada about their experiences with cyber attacks, harassment and disinformation campaigns against them. It’s called transnational digital repression and they said Canada is not tackling it.

“Obviously, the Canadian government’s response has focused on more narrow issues such as threats to critical infrastructure or our democratic institutions,” Anstis said. “So this issue of transnational digital repression, I think, is completely missed. “

The harassment doesn’t stop with cyber attacks, they said. Disinformation campaigns are also part of efforts by foreign regimes to silence their critics of human rights in Canada.

It is even worse for women, said Aljizawi, as they are often the target of sexual harassment campaigns. Harassment against advocates or complainants can even be felt on the streets, with people feeling physically watched, and some researchers interviewed say they changed their ways because of it.

“It’s a huge concern and it’s not always something happening in the digital world,” Aljizawi said. “Canada’s silence gives the attackers more room to launch an attack.”

Researchers say that although the problems are complex, there are ways to solve them, including mental health resources for people from refugee communities and ways to stem the export of technologies developed in Canada to countries. who use them for cyber attacks and harassment.

Teich, meanwhile, said she would like to see a dedicated office to deal with complaints from human rights workers about such harassment.

“I think there should probably be a dedicated team, a dedicated hotline, people trained in that to deal specifically with foreign regimes targeting human rights defenders,” she said.

“Whether it comes down to CSIS, CSE, RCMP or SPT, I don’t think it matters particularly. People who know what they’re doing about it.