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Tech companies should protect human rights activists from nation-state attackers

Allowing activists to be verified on social media is one immediately available safeguard.

By Sarah Teich, Geoffrey Aharon and Conor Healy

August 16, 2022

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Late last month, China broke new ground in its global cyberwar to silence its critics. While human rights activists who take on authoritarian regimes regularly face hacking attempts and harassment, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is pioneering new methods to make their lives a living hell.

Until now, the CCP has mostly used hacking or intimidation when targeting critics who are based in democratic countries. This article’s three authors have been targeted by CCP cyberattacks numerous times. Like most, we expected that living in a democratic country was a sufficient safeguard from more harmful and sinister threats, like illegal detention and deportation, which human rights defenders routinely face in non-democracies, such as Belarus and Iran. Yet, this expectation is no longer holding true.

The CCP is now escalating its war to silence and deter activists abroad. Recently, human rights activist Drew Pavlou was the target of an unprecedented smear campaign. The CCP reportedly created fake email addresses in his name and sent a fake bomb threat to the Chinese Embassy in London where he was protesting, resulting in Pavlou’s arrest by the Metropolitan Police. The attackers then impersonated his lawyer from a lookalike email address and sent incriminating-looking emails in a further attempt to silence and discredit him. Pavlou now faces criminal charges.

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