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Civil society NGOs under threat, says Access

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Attacks on the freedom-of-speech community worldwide seemed to grow in 2011, according to umbrella organization Access.

The group, whose members include civil society NGOs around the world, says the security and “cyber warfare” skills available to activists don’t match the skills available to their attackers – whether they are criminals, individuals or governments.

“LGBT [lesbian, gay, bi and transgender] activists, environmental advocates, and corporate campaigners are facing … foes, who are using the Internet to disable, disarm, and neuter them”, the group writes in the report, Global civil society at risk: An overview of some of the major cyber threats facing civil society.

The lack of “deep information security knowledge, skills, and experience” puts individuals and NGOs at risk, since they often only realize that they’re at risk “when communications with a colleague suddenly cease and their fate becomes unknown”, the report says.

The report says that since Access was founded after the Iran elections in 2009, it has documented pretty much the full range of attacks against member organisations, including DoS, blocking and filtering, man-in-the-middle attacks, surveillance, communication blackouts, compromised user accounts, Website defacements, data leakage, takedown notices, and attacks on NGO’s sources of funding.

All of these events were, of course, familiar to tech news-watchers: the hosing of the Sarawakreport.org Website in April 2011, apparently by the Malaysian government; the increasingly-widespread Internet censorship efforts even in supposedly-liberal societies like Australia, the US and the UK; the compromising of the Comodo and DigiNotar CAs; surveillance in a host of countries, not only on the Internet but in the world of wetware via increasingly-pervasive CCTV systems; shutdowns that were observed pretty much wherever the “Arab Spring” spread; and so on.

Access’ concern, however, is not for the tech-savvy, but rather for the activists who are at risk, are attacked, and lack the means to defend themselves. As well as documenting the forms attacks are taking, the report is a call for help:

“It is imperative that members of the global technology community, including the corporate sector, consider what they can do to assist civil society to meet the cyber threats they face,” the report says.

Access is calling for assistance creating products that are human-rights friendly by design, offering products to NGOs at prices that meet their budgets, sharing threat information with NGOs, or open-sourcing products that help them secure their communications and defend their operations. ®

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