Posts Tagged ‘Forensic Architecture’

New investigation shows global reach of NSO Group’s spyware

July 5, 2021

On 3 July 2021, a new interactive online platform by Forensic Architecture, supported by Amnesty International and the Citizen Lab, maps for the first time the global spread of the notorious spyware Pegasus, made by cyber-surveillance company NSO Group.

‘Digital Violence: How the NSO Group Enables State Terror’ documents digital attacks against human rights defenders around the world, and shows the connections between the ‘digital violence’ of Pegasus spyware and the real-world harms lawyers, activists, and other civil society figures face.   NSO Group is the worst of the worst in selling digital burglary tools to players who they are fully aware actively and aggressively violate the human rights of dissidents, opposition figures, and journalists. Edward Snowden, President of Freedom of the Press Foundation.

NSO Group is a major player in the shadowy surveillance industry. The company’s Pegasus spyware has been used in some of the most insidious digital attacks on human rights defenders. When Pegasus is surreptitiously installed on a person’s phone, an attacker has complete access to a phone’s messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, calls and contacts. For my earlier posts on NSO see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/nso-group/

“The investigation reveals the extent to which the digital domain we inhabit has become the new frontier of human rights violations, a site of state surveillance and intimidation that enables physical violations in real space,” said Shourideh C. Molavi, Forensic Architecture’s Researcher-in-Charge. 

Edward Snowden narrates an accompanying video series which tell the stories of human rights activists and journalists targeted by Pegasus. The interactive platform also includes sound design by composer Brian Eno. A film about the project by award-winning director Laura Poitras will premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival later this month.

The online platform is one of the most comprehensive databases on NSO-related activities, with information about export licenses, alleged purchases, digital infections, and the physical targeting of activists after being targeted with spyware, including intimidation, harassment, and detention. The platform also sheds light on the complex corporate structure of NSO Group, based on new research by Amnesty International and partners.

For years, NSO Group has shrouded its operations in secrecy and profited from working in the shadows. This platform brings to light the important connections between the use of its spyware and the devastating human rights abuses inflicted upon activists and civil society,” said Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech.

Amnesty International’s Security Lab and Citizen Lab have repeatedly exposed the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to target hundreds of human rights defenders across the globe. Amnesty International is calling on NSO Group to urgently take steps to ensure that it does not cause or contribute to human rights abuses, and to respond when they do occur. The cyber-surveillance must carry out adequate human rights due diligence and take steps to ensure that human rights defenders and journalists do not continue to become targets of unlawful surveillance.

In October 2019, Amnesty International revealed that Moroccan academic and activist, Maati Monjib’s phone had been infected with Pegasus spyware. He continues to face harassment by the Moroccan authorities for his human rights work. In December 2020, Maati Monjib was arbitrarily detained before being released on parole on 23 March 2021.

Maati Monjib, tells his story in one of the short films, and spoke of the personal toll following the surveillance, “The authorities knew everything I said. I was in danger. Surveillance is very harming for the psychological wellbeing of the victim. My life has changed a lot because of all these pressures.”

Amnesty International is calling for all charges against Maati to be dropped, and the harassment against him and his family by the Moroccan authorities to end.

To find out more visit digitalviolence.org

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/07/investigation-maps-human-rights-harm-of-nso-group-spyware/

https://www.techradar.com/news/spyware-toolkit-used-by-governments-hackers-to-break-into-windows-machines

Forensic Architecture and similar in Berlin are building Investigative Commons, a kind of super-hub for human rights activism

June 28, 2021

The Guardian of 27 June 2021 carries a fascinating article entitled “Berlin’s No 1 digital detective agency is on the trail of human rights abusers” about investigators in Germany who are using Google Earth, YouTube clips and social media posts to bring political crimes to the courts

Projecting images across a 3D model can help determine real-world distances between objects.

Projecting images across a 3D model can help determine real-world distances between objects. Photograph: Forensic ArchitecturePhilip Oltermann in Berlin@philipoltermann

…..this second-floor space inside a beige brick former soap factory is something closer to a newsroom or a detective agency, tripling up as a lawyers’ chambers. Next month it will formally be launched as the home of the Investigative Commons, a kind of super-hub for organisations whose work has revolutionised the field of human rights activism.

Most of the desks will be taken up by Forensic Architecture, a team of architects, archaeologists and journalists whose digital models of crime scenes have been cited as evidence at the international criminal court, contributed to the sentencing of the neo-Nazi leaders of Greece’s Golden Dawn party, and led to an unprecedented apology from Benjamin Netanyahu over the accidental killing of a Bedouin teacher.

Then there is the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a human rights NGO headquartered on the floor below, which last year brought to court the first worldwide case against Syrian state torture.

Bellingcat – the organisation started by British blogger Eliot Higgins that revealed the perpetrators behind the poisonings of MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny – will have its name on a desk in the hub as well as Mnemonic, a Berlin-based group of Syrian exiles who build databases to archive evidence of war crimes in their homeland, and Laura Poitras, the US film-maker who worked with whistleblower Edward Snowden to expose the National Security Agency’s (NSA) global surveillance programme.

They all share, says Poitras, “a commitment to primary evidence”: each group works on the cutting edge of what has come to be known as “open-source intelligence”, the mass-harvesting, modelling and examination of publicly available material from Google Earth, social media posts or YouTube videos. In the post-truth era, they excel at the painstaking task of corroborating the facts behind disputed events. “The traditional model for human rights work is that you have a big NGO that sends experts to the frontline of a conflict, speaks to sources and then writes up a report on their return,” says Forensic Architecture’s British-Israeli founder Eyal Weizman. “Nowadays, evidence is produced by people on the frontline of the struggle. You no longer have one trusted source but dozens of sources, from satellite images to smartphone data. Our challenge lies in assembling these sources.”

Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative journalism website Bellingcat.

Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative journalism website Bellingcat. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Observer

These groups have occasionally collaborated, but have broadly followed their own paths for over a decade. The decision to pool their investigative tools, with the added legal heft of ECCHR, is a sign that open-source investigations could be coming of age, moving one step further away from art and academia towards a world where the ultimate judge of their work will be a sober, bewigged individual in a courtroom.

“Facts need good litigators,” says Weizman. “Human rights work is transforming: you used to have these big clearing-house-style NGOs that did everything. Now it’s more like an ecosystem of investigators and litigators. Rather than one person writing up a report, there is a constant workshop, with people being brought in all the time as long as confidentiality allows.”

As with any all-star team, there is a risk of key players stepping on each other’s toes as they jockey for the same position on the field.

“Of course there’s a certain tension,” says ECCHR’s founder, Wolfgang Kaleck. “You have to be aware which pitch you are playing on at any given stage, and what the rules of the game are.”

The first showcase of the physical collaboration is a joint investigation documenting human rights abuses in Yemen. Syrian journalist Hadi al-Khatib’s Mnemonic has amassed and verified thousands of videos of airstrikes in the multisided civil war on the southern end of the Arabian peninsula.

Forensic Architecture applied its own mapping software to tell the story of these incidents through time and space. Evidence from the scenes of these attacks, such as fragments of munition found on site, then provided clues as to the identity of the western manufacturers of the weapons used – which is where ECCHR’s lawyers have come in.

The fact that this assembly line for investigations into human rights abuses will be physically located in Berlin has much to do with the German capital’s history and social environment – but also the conditions for investigative work in post-Brexit Britain.

Both Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture were once British success stories. The former was started in 2014 from the front room of Leicester-based Higgins, then still an office worker-cum-blogger going by the Frank Zappa-inspired alias Brown Moses. The latter grew out of, and continues to be affiliated with, Goldsmiths, University of London, and was nominated for the Turner prize in 2018.

But as these groups have grown on the back of their successes, Britain’s departure from the EU has made the task of bringing in new researchers with international backgrounds more cumbersome, with EU nationals now required to show proof of settled status or a skilled-worker visa. Goldsmiths announced a hiring freeze last May.

Traditional human rights NGOs have started using Berlin as the place to launch their own open-source investigations. Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab, which has used satellite technology and 3D modelling to uncover human rights abuses in Ethiopia and Myanmar, has been led for the last five years from the city. Human Rights Watch’s Digital Investigations Lab has key staff in Berlin, as well as a project with the German space agency.

Bellingcat, which made its name with an investigation into the 2014 crash of the Kuala Lumpur-bound Malaysia Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam, moved its main offices to the Dutch capital in 2018. “Brexit created uncertainties on the horizon,” says Higgins. “We didn’t want to be a in a position where our international staff couldn’t stay in the UK. We needed something that gave us more flexibility.”

Another factor behind the move was that investigative journalism per se is not a recognised charitable purpose in the UK, and consequently has limited access to the funding opportunities and tax advantages of charities. In the Netherlands, Bellingcat is now set up as a stichting, or foundation.

As well being a founding member of the Investigative Commons, Forensic Architecture is moving a quarter of its staff to Germany to set up Forensis, an NGO that will be a registered association or eingetragener Verein under German law, allowing it to access funding that would not be available in the UK. It will focus its work on human rights issues with a European dimension, from cybersurveillance and rightwing extremism to immigration.

The University of London will continue to be a home for the group of digital detectives but could eventually become more of an “incubator” for new research methods, says Weizman.

Berlin has been in a similar situation before. In around 2014 the city looked briefly as if it had become the world’s ultimate safe harbour, from where hackers, human rights groups and artists would expose humanitarian abuses globally.

WikiLeaks staffers were marooned in Berlin’s counterculture scene, fearful of being detained upon return to the US or the UK. Poitras edited her Snowden film, Citizenfour, in the city, concerned her source material could be seized by the government in America. Chinese dissidents such as Liu Xia, Liao Yiwu and Ai Weiwei also found new homes here.

For multiple reasons, that promise was not fulfilled. …

“Perhaps then the expectation of what Berlin could become was simply too great,” says Kaleck, who is Snowden’s lawyer. Nowadays, Berlin may be less of a city for dreaming of digital revolutions, and more of a place to get work done. “We’re on an even keel now – that’s a good starting point.”

https://www.theguardian.com/law/2021/jun/27/berlins-no-1-digital-detective-agency-is-on-the-trail-of-human-rights-abusers