Digital Threats and Activists in Exile: How Egypt, Syria, and Iran Discipline Dissidents in the Diaspora
Interview with: Marcus Michaelsen @mmichae1sen
by Mahtab Dehghan April 3, 2020
Hivos, a Netherlands based development aid organization, has recently published new research, on Egypt, Syria, and Iran revealing that in all three countries, the forced exit of dissidents and activists appeared to be a deliberate strategy of state authorities. However, as soon as those fleeing dissents start to live and become active in exile, the systematic campaigns of those governments to silence them begin.
Marcus Michaelsen is the writer for this new research titled “Silencing across Borders” based on more than 50 interviews with activists from Egypt, Syria, and Iran. His research reveals that these authoritarian regimes try to limit the activity of the activists in exiles in two ways: first by blocking their access to public opinion and secondly by limiting their communications with inside the country.
Zamaneh Media’s Mahtab Deghan has interviewed Michaelsen about his research on Iran, Egypt, and Syria. All three countries rank low in press freedom index. According to reporters without borders, in 2019 Egypt, Iran and Syria have a ranking of 163, 170, and 174 respectively among 180 countries.
Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has sent hundreds of thousands to exile. From Australia to North America, there are groups of Iranian dissidents living and creating their diaspora life. At the same time, the Iranian intelligence agencies have been disciplining these exiled dissidents from far far away.
Today Iranian in exile, in Europe, Asia, and North America, are all being threatened by another form of intimidation, which is invisible digital attacks. Michaelsen tried to find out the tools and practices used by regimes to control and contain dissent across borders, the effects of these threats on diaspora and exiled activists, and what the responses of the targeted activists are.
Read the Full text of the interview with Marcus Michaelsen:
– Your report investigates the digital techniques and methods of State repression, focusing on three cases of Iran, Egypt, and Syria. However, we know that all modern states more or less use digital techniques for surveillance and controlling citizens. This form of digital disciplining is done in most cases in the name of national security. What makes Iran, Syria and Egypt distinct compared to the other nation-states in the world who are using methods of digital surveillance?
Iran, Syria and Egypt have all experienced long periods of authoritarian rule which means that political opposition, civil society and the media are severely restricted. The uprisings in the Arab World in 2011 and the 2009 protests of the Green Movement in Iran offered some opportunities for protest and dissent. But these openings were short-lived and answered by a repressive backlash that re-imposed strong state control. In Syria, the uprising turned into an armed conflict which pushed civil society further to the sidelines. The increasing restrictions in Iran, Egypt and Syria pushed many civil society activists and journalists to leave their country and many of them continued their activism from abroad. It turns out that state authorities were not unhappy to get rid of critics and troublemakers. But at the same time, they use a range of methods to monitor and control dissent from abroad — which is what my report shows.
So, what is particular about the three countries is their strong desire to suppress alternative views and criticism as well as the fact that a significant section of their civil societies has emigrated and continues to be active from abroad. Therefore, they all engage in different practices of repression across borders. The tools and techniques they use are not even very sophisticated, compared to other states, but the three regimes are quite persistent in their attempts to silence dissent from abroad.
– You saw similarities between the techniques and methods of repression in your three cases. Do you think this is because of knowledge exchange between the authoritarian states about governance and surveillance, or that the security markets provide the same tools to every state customer?
Authoritarian states are certainly learning from each other, either through direct exchange or simply by observing what works and what does not work in other countries. To give one example, we know that the Syrian regime has closely watched as the Arab uprisings unfolded in other countries, and they had already drawn their lessons when protests started emerging in their country. Also, Iran and Russia have helped the Syrian regime in terms of internet control, surveillance and digital attacks.
The commercial market for technology is clearly contributing to a global proliferation of tools and knowledge that are used for severe human rights violations. But, as I show in the report, of the three countries only Egypt has access to the Western market for spyware. Iran and Syria are under international sanctions and have turned to Russia or China. Also, the tools that these regimes are using against exiled dissidents are not necessarily technically very advanced. For example, for their phishing emails, they rely on common malware, but package this malware in a well-developed message to convince their target to open a corrupted file or click on a malicious link. This so-called social engineering is built on a close monitoring of the target person in order to get to know their weak points — and this is something security agencies in authoritarian regimes have a lot of experience with.
– Do you think digital tools and cybernetic capabilities have given governments more power to control dissidence and to tackle the oppositions?
Digital technologies have given authoritarian governments new methods for repression across borders and they have changed traditional methods. Today, activists, especially in diaspora and exile communities, rely heavily on social media, both for their professional and personal lives. They risk exposing information on their activities and contacts that government agents can use for malware attacks, online harassment and disinformation or smear campaigns. In addition, because authorities are able to monitor dissidents abroad more easily and on a larger scale, they can swiftly use more traditional methods of transnational repression to put activists under pressure. For instance, if a human rights defender gives an interview to a foreign media station or publishes an editorial, authorities can monitor this and put her family in the country under pressure. The activist, in turn, will learn more quickly about the threats against her family and has to weigh the costs and benefits of being outspoken from abroad. For the regimes, digital technologies reduce the costs of exerting political control across borders while enabling them to monitor and respond to diaspora activism with greater scope and speed.
– If we consider digital tools as weapons that can be used by both opposition activists and totalitarian governments, which side of this war in your opinion has strategic advantage over the others?
In the end, states will always have more resources than civil society. Some of the Gulf countries have invested a lot of money in advanced surveillance technologies that they use against civil society activists. Countries like Iran or Egypt maybe use less sophisticated technology, but simply have a lot of manpower to monitor activists, send them phishing emails, or threaten them on social media. If state actors want to get at someone, they certainly have an advantage.
But in my opinion, it is not about winning a war, or a cat-and-mouse game, as it is often called. It is about making any threat as difficult and as costly as possible.
First of all, this can be done by raising the overall level of risk awareness and digital security. A lot of digital attacks can already be prevented by following some simple precautions.
Second, activists must strengthen their networks of support and knowledge exchange to distribute risks more evenly. High profile activists will often also have a pretty good level of digital security. But attackers will look for a weak spot among their network of contacts to get to them. So, networks for information and support in digital security must reach and include as many activists as possible, including those lonely freelance journalists on the frontlines.
And a third point to make information controls and digital surveillance more difficult is to raise public awareness on these practices and to call regimes out, to name and shame them. For instance, in the media or in reports of human rights organizations, eventually maybe even in diplomatic meetings on the government level. This public and external pressure is important to show authoritarian regimes that they are being observed and cannot simply repress civil society at their own will.
– In your report you concluded that digital tools were to some extent effective in intimidation and censorship of online activists. Do you think your report can be educational for activists to learn how to tackle the threats and tricks that comes from the State actors?
The report aims to shed light and raise awareness on the different methods of transnational repression as well as their effects on activists. In the conclusion I also bring up some broader recommendations for how to respond to these practices and mitigate the risks for diaspora and exiled activists. Among others, I suggest to strengthen capacities and networks for digital security as well as to involve civil society and government authorities in the host countries to protect activists against threats from their home regimes. But the report is not a manual that gives exact guidelines for improving security behavior and practices. The goal is to stimulate further reflection and activities in this field.
– Is there any international legal framework that would limit the states’ online surveillance and hacking activities?
This is an interesting question and in my current research project, which builds on the research for the OTF report, I would like to follow up exactly on such questions. The practices of transnational repression described in the report certainly violate the human rights of the targeted activists as they interfere with their privacy and their right to freedom of expression. But it is difficult to operationalize these rights — where should the targets complain? Who would hold the regimes accountable for their attempts to silence dissidents in other countries?
It is also important to think about the responsibilities of the host countries. In the countries in which the targeted activists reside and work. Often, they are residents and even citizens in these countries, or they are recognized as political emigrants. In any case, authorities of the host country have some obligations to protect activists on their territory against threats from other governments. But again, the question is what should activists do to trigger these host country obligations? Where should they complain? Would the local police in the Netherlands or Germany understand the threats they are facing and act accordingly?
– Did your Iranian interviewees ever sue the Iranian state for extending their security measures beyond the borders and spying on and pressuring activists in other countries?
Not to my knowledge.
– I found the quote from an Iranian journalist in your report especially interesting: “The biggest risk in terms of digital security is that I respect all necessary measures but somebody else doesn’t. As if you were driving a car and you respect all the rules, but somebody else doesn’t and you get into an accident with that person.” At the time of coronavirus pandemics, this quote strikes me because it shows the limits of individual care (also the harms of individual carelessness), and the need for broadening our perspective to communal well-being and security. Do you think we are already on the road to reach a socially conscious behaviors among activists about online security?
From my interviews with digital security trainers I gathered that people in this field are now searching for more long-term and community-based solutions to strengthen the digital resilience of civil society. Digital security trainings that are held in form of a single event have limited impact only because participants will forget the tools they have learnt and not substantially change their online behavior.
Also, as the quote of the journalist points out, digital security is not about learning some tools and techniques. Organizations that are active in this field are now trying out different forms of long-term support and accompaniment in terms of digital security. For journalists and human right defenders it is important to be embedded in networks of support and information sharing so that they have a better level of understanding digital risks, but also know who to ask for help should they face some form of immediate threat.
In addition, there is now an increasing focus on what is called holistic security: to strengthen the resilience of civil society activists against external threats it is important to consider not only their digital security, but also their psychosocial wellbeing and their physical security.