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Hacking the activists fighting for human rights

By Sarah Teich and Mehmet Tohti

Jan 12, 2022

'Cybersecurity experts have stated that state-sponsored hacking by the CCP reached record levels in 2021, but evidence of their vast hacking has been around for more than a decade.'

(Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Last month, a landmark case went before the Federal Court of Canada. It was a landmark because it was the first time that a Uyghur organization appeared before a Canadian court of law. The Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project (URAP) intervened in the case of Kilgour et al. v. AGC, and asked the Court to rule that the Canada Border Services Agency is entitled to presumptively ban imports from Xinjiang, on the basis that such imports are produced using Uyghur forced labour.

Millions of Uyghurs have been rounded up and arbitrarily detained in camps by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in what is considered the largest mass detention of a minority group since the Holocaust. Detainees are forcibly sterilized; subject to mass rape and sexual abuse; and exploited as forced labourers. The supply chains of multiple large industries are impacted, as a shocking one-fifth of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang/East Turkestan, and is obscured in international supply chains.

This is all extremely well-documented, but anyone who calls out these abuses becomes a target of repression.

We have personal experience with the abuse that faces the CCP’s critics. Four days before the hearing, the devices belonging to URAP’s legal counsel, Sarah Teich, were hacked. One day later, a smartphone belonging to URAP’s executive director, Mehmet Tohti, was also hacked. During the hearing itself, which was held over Zoom, Teich was booted out of the Zoom call, a few minutes into the start of her oral submissions on behalf of URAP.

We can only assume this was targeted. One of the authors of this piece, Tohti, a Uyghur activist, has been the victim of numerous cyber crimes.

Naturally, those within China are in the gravest of danger of reprisals for speaking out. But the CCP also regularly targets critics outside of China, especially members of the Uyghur diaspora, for harassment and intimidation. As Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair described, in a letter obtained by Global News, “foreign states, including the PRC (Peoples Republic of China), attempt to threaten and intimidate individuals around the world, including in Canada ”.

Hacking is a common tactic. Cybersecurity experts have stated that state-sponsored hacking by the CCP reached record levels in 2021, but evidence of their vast hacking has been around for more than a decade. And targeted hackings of human rights defenders, in general, have been on the rise, as documented extensively by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and Amnesty International Canada.

This phenomenon is pervasive, but we are still lacking the resources to adequately address state-sponsored hacking. There is no dedicated hotline, and in fact, there is massive confusion when we try to report. In this particular case, CSIS directed us to call CSE. CSE directed us to call the RCMP. RCMP directed us to call Toronto Police. Toronto Police told us to fill out the online reporting tool and categorize it as “fraud”, and then the system promptly rejected our online filing because we had failed to demonstrate any monetary loss. What we are left with is reliance on good Samaritans and civil society, such as Citizen Lab, when really this should be the government’s responsibility.

As common as hacking attempts are, this the first time, to our knowledge, that a hacking has immediately proceeded a Canadian court case. That is serious. It goes beyond the usual intimidation tactics: This is an attempt to directly interfere with the justice system in Canada.

The effect was real. Instead of refining URAP’s oral submissions the weekend before the hearing, we spent dozens of hours securing our devices. This type of interference should not be permitted in a democratic country.

As Alex Neve, former secretary general of Amnesty International Canada’s English branch put it, it is “time for a coordinated government approach” to combat this trend. In order to safeguard our democratic institutions, it is time for Canada to get serious about combating transnational repression and foreign interference.

Sarah Teich is an international human rights lawyer and a legal adviser to the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project (URAP). Mehmet Tohti is the executive director of URAP based in Ottawa.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.


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