It’s the stuff of a cyber-espionage blockbuster: international networks hacking computers, governments locked in a brutal digital arms race, and a scrappy team of can-do civilians fighting for average citizens from a basement laboratory. But you won’t find the heroes of this drama at the nearest movie theater. This is a nonfiction narrative, and the stars are everyday researchers working for Citizen Lab, an organization that monitors power in cyberspace.
Founded in 2001 and run out of the basement of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, Citizen Lab is geared up to “watch the watchers and document the shadow war most are too busy updating their Facebook pages to notice,” Aaron Broverman writes in This Magazine (March-April 2010). The scope of the battle is startling: Last year, Citizen Lab investigated a virus that gave hackers unfettered access to the Dalai Lama’s computer, as well as 1,295 other terminals across 103 countries. The origins of the culprit were traced back to four control servers in China.
Whether this was the work of the Chinese state or a hacker who wished it to appear so, it’s impossible to determine. But this kind of aggressive digital intelligence gathering is the new global norm, This reports: “We are witnessing, the Citizen Lab researchers believe, the weaponization of cyberspace.”
Citizen Lab also defends Internet freedom worldwide, keeping tabs on censorship with a project called the OpenNet Initiative. “If you stumble upon a site a sitting government doesn’t agree with, it may simply look like a problem with your Internet connection,” Broverman explains. Governments in any country can run Internet service through a single gateway, allowing them to substitute error messages for prohibited or dissident websites. Citizen Lab relies on a global network of people, many of whom risk their well-being if not their lives, to collect comparison data inside repressive states such as Burma and Iran.
Ron Deibert, Citizen Lab’s founder and head researcher, hopes to someday have an international agreement “that treats cyberspace as a public commons and halts the aggressive arms race that threatens to further erode our basic rights,” Broverman reports. “For the moment, it will have to be enough to know that Citizen Lab will be watching the watchers.”