Future Tense

Digital Technology Helps Governments Target Critics Across Borders

A man in black robes and a mask elbow-bumps with a man in pink clothes and a mask in a courtroom.
Paul Rusesabagina greets his lawyer Gatera Gashabana at the Supreme Court in Kigali, Rwanda, on Feb. 17. Simon Wohlfahrt/Getty Images

Last week, the trial of Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda and critic of the Rwandan government, began in Kigali, Rwanda. As the international community raises concerns about due process violations and debates the merit of the terrorism charges he faces, one thing is clear: Rusesabagina is only in Rwandan custody because of the Rwandan government’s illegal campaign of transnational repression.

Transnational repression, or the targeting of exiles and diasporas by their origin country governments, is a growing global phenomenon. In a new report, Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach, Freedom House, where I work, found that 31 governments physically target their exiles and diasporas abroad, in 79 host countries, with 160 unique pairings. Physical targeting ranges from unlawful deportation to assassination to abduction. Rusesabagina was a victim of the latter: After flying to the United Arab Emirates on Aug. 27, he was forcibly rendered from Dubai to Kigali, in what amounted to a kidnapping facilitated by the use of a private plane.

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Undergirding the violent practice of transnational repression is digital technology. In many ways, social media and messaging platforms are a boon for exiles, refugees, and other émigrés, who use them to remain in touch with loved ones in their country of origin and to engage in diaspora politics and activism. But in the eyes of dozens of governments around the world, vocal criticism and coordination online is a fundamental threat to regime stability. Those governments target their nationals abroad, turning the digital tools that critics and opposition rely on into means of repression. States use spyware, social media monitoring, and online harassment to disrupt, intimidate, surveil, and attack exiles from across the globe. Some Rwandan critics in exile—including one who was previously targeted with spyware—have posited that digital surveillance may have played a role in Rusesabagina’s abduction. Whether or not those suspicions are proven true, the concern underscores the impact of the widespread use of digital transnational repression.

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Of the 31 states engaging in physical transnational repression, at least 17, including Rwanda, also use spyware to target individuals who have left the country. The perpetrator governments range from global powers such as Russia and China to regional influencers, like Ethiopia and Venezuela, and smaller states, including Vietnam and Azerbaijan.

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Spyware allows these governments access to a huge amount of personal information, including location and private communications. However, spyware does not only put the person whose device is infected at risk. The interconnected nature of digital communications means spyware can make entire networks or communities vulnerable to surveillance, threats, and even physical attacks.

In summer 2018, Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi exile and dissident living in Canada, was targeted with Pegasus spyware produced by NSO Group. At the time, Abdulaziz was in frequent contact with Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who would be murdered by Saudi agents in the country’s Istanbul consulate that October. As the two men collaborated on a plan to combat the Saudi government’s manipulative activities on social media, the Pegasus spyware infection on Abdulaziz’s phone allowed Saudi authorities access to all of his communications, essentially surveilling anyone Abdulaziz had contact with. In June 2019, U.N. special rapporteur Agnès Callamard released a report on the Khashoggi murder, which linked the killing to the spyware deployed against Abdulaziz.

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NSO Group is just one of hundreds of companies selling surveillance products on the open market. In many cases, the sale of these products involves minimal oversight or transparency, allowing governments with abysmal human rights records—like Rwanda and Saudi Arabia—to purchase incredibly powerful tools with little real concern for how they will be used.

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Even without spyware, open-source surveillance is possible through social media. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to name a few, can be incredibly important tools for diaspora activists and critics to gain a following and connect with likeminded individuals. But these tools may share information about where they are, who they care for, and who they work with. Personal details about family members or loved ones living in the country of origin may lead to them being threatened, arrested, or attacked in an attempt to pressure the exile. Analyzing interactions on social media can help unravel connections between activist networks, making them easier to infiltrate, target, and surveil.

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Social media also facilitates a range of online harassment, which can include threats against the target or their family, doxing, persistent harassment, and smear campaigns. Women in particular face grueling online harassment, including misogynistic commentary and threats of sexual violence. Our report found that 21 of the 31 origin governments use digital threats as part of their campaign of transnational repression. Many of these governments, including Rwanda and Saudi Arabia, use virtual armies of inauthentic accounts to target opposition. The cost of deploying online threats is low, but they are disproportionately high-benefit for the perpetrating country: the exposure of personal details online or an inescapable barrage of harassment take a psychological toll, and can deter people from speaking out in the future.

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The power of states with immense financial and technological resources compared with the often-meager resources of those they target is daunting, but not insurmountable. Democratic governments, civil society, and tech companies can shift the technological balance in favor of protecting exiles and diasporas.

Democratic governments should place restrictions on the export of surveillance technology to buyers known to have committed human rights abuses, and require businesses exporting this technology to report annually on the impact of its uses. The United States is already prepared to take some of these steps, as the U.S. Department of Commerce’s licensing policy restricts the export of items if there is “a risk that the items will be used to violate or abuse human rights.” The Biden administration should include transnational repression in its assessment of whether there is a risk of human rights abuse. On the flip side, governments can also build resilience to some types of digital monitoring by pushing back on any legislative, technical, or other attempts to undermine protections for encrypted communication services. This includes the U.S., where members of both parties in the executive and legislative branches have previously tried to weaken encryption.

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Civil society can combat the vulnerabilities presented by digital technology by investing in digital hygiene trainings for targeted communities. As is clear by the networked nature of digital technology’s role in transnational repression, each member of an at-risk community presents a vulnerability to the community at large. Wide-reaching trainings that encourage use of digital security practices like using two-factor authentication, communicating through encrypted messaging services, and recognizing phishing attacks are crucial to insulating communities.

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Finally, social media companies should take steps to ensure that their decisions and policies, including on content moderation and inauthentic activity, do not inadvertently cause further harm to victims of transnational repression. They should educate relevant staff about the methods of targeting, at-risk communities, and perpetrator governments. Without taking this context into consideration, social media platforms may become unwitting accomplices to transnational repression.

The renewed urgency of combatting transnational repression sparked by Rusesabagina’s high-profile case won’t end when his trial concludes. For many exiles and diaspora communities around the world, surveillance and retribution—and the threat of them—are daily realities that limit freedom of expression and the ability engage in civic life.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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