Most academic researchers struggle to get anyone at all to pay attention to their research—so it’s hard to overstate how unusual it is for someone to be willing to devote time and money to spying on an academic research center. But according to a report last week by the Associated Press, that’s exactly what happened to researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who work on exposing online surveillance and state-based hacking initiatives.
Two Citizen Lab researchers were contacted by men posing as tech-industry executives for fake companies who arranged meetings with the researchers in December and January. The New York Times has identified one of the fake tech executives as Aharon Almog-Assoulin, a retired Israeli security official, but it’s not clear whom the undercover agents were working for, though they repeatedly questioned the researchers about the team’s work on an Israeli surveillance program sold by the NSO Group. (The NSO Group denied any involvement and told AP it had never hired or asked anyone to hire agents to look into Citizen Lab.) What is clear is that the kind of work that Citizen Lab is doing—pulling back the curtain on the tools and techniques that governments and others use to conduct digital surveillance and compromise devices belonging to journalists, human rights activists, and political dissidents around the world—is more important and more difficult to do than ever.
The Citizen Lab, headed by Toronto political science professor Ron Deibert, is widely known for its in-depth investigations of how state-supported hackers across the globe operate. Researchers there can track these operations and lay out exactly how different surveillance missions are implemented, bringing together both sophisticated technical knowledge and geopolitical analysis. That approach sets the lab apart from many others working on issues of digital surveillance, as does their geographic range. In 2018 alone, it published reports on how Tibetans were being targeted by phishing campaigns and how commercial software developed by the NSO Group was used to target Mexican journalists and Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident in Canada who was a confidant of murdered Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi. Following Khashoggi’s assassination at the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul and the revelation that Abdulaziz’s phone had been compromised, CNN analyzed more than 400 WhatsApp messages between Khashoggi and Abdulaziz. CNN found that they included strong criticisms of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and may have been accessed through the malware downloaded on Abdulaziz’s phone.
In December, just two days after CNN published its article on the WhatsApp messages, Citizen Lab researcher Bahr Abdul Razzak was contacted on LinkedIn by a man named Gary Bowman. Bowman told Abdul Razzak that he was a South African financial technology executive at a (nonexistent) Madrid-based company called FlameTech. He said he was interested in working with him, and the two men met at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto on Dec. 18. Abdul Razzak told AP that Bowman proceeded to grill him on the Citizen Lab’s work about NSO spyware, reading off cue cards and asking questions such as “Why do you write only about NSO?”; “Do you write about it because it’s an Israeli company?”; “Do you hate Israel?”
One month later, after the Associated Press and Citizen Lab had established there was no such company as FlameTech, another Citizen Lab researcher, John Scott-Railton, received a message from a representative of another fictional company, this one a Paris-based agricultural tech firm called CPW-Consulting. Prepared this time, Scott-Railton met the CPW-Consulting representative at the Peninsula Hotel in New York armed with a GoPro camera and other recording devices, while two AP reporters sat at a nearby table. Scott-Railton was grilled about whether he had any Jewish friends growing up and whether there was any “racist element” behind Citizen Lab’s investigations into Israeli-made software. Then, at the end of the meal, the AP reporters confronted the man and asked why there was no record of his company. He left without answering any of their questions.
The fake websites for both FlameTech and CPW-Consulting disappeared soon after the AP published its article on the operation, but the reporters were unable to figure out whom they worked for—they couldn’t find any evidence that they had been hired by the NSO Group. Scott-Railton and Abdul Razzak both told the AP that they suspected they were being recorded during their respective meetings (Scott-Railton noticed a pen on the restaurant table that he thought had a camera lens) and that the undercover agents most likely wanted them to make statements about Israel or their work that would embarrass the research center and compromise the integrity of their work.
These two failed attempts to fool Citizen Lab researchers are both surreal and terrifying. Parts of the story seem like almost laughably weak efforts at infiltrating a group of experts at detecting online subterfuge—the hastily mocked-up websites for the two fake companies featuring a stock photos as an executive headshot; the inexpert, awkward questioning about whether the researchers disliked Israel or Jews. On the other hand, as clunky and inexpert as those efforts were, it’s still unsettling that someone would go to the trouble and expense of creating those websites and hiring those men to meet with Abdul Razzak and Scott-Railton in the name of trying to discredit or derail research about online surveillance and commercial spyware.
It’s a mark of how solid the lab’s researchers’ digital protections must be (unsurprising, really) that the only way their adversaries could think of to to compromise them was to arrange for in-person meetings. More than that, it’s a reminder that doing this kind of work on digital surveillance requires not just tremendous skill and resources but also the courage and institutional backing to confront the people who want to keep that surveillance under wraps at all costs—whoever they may be.