The ‘Catalangate’ has turned its eyes on Citizen Lab, an “interdisciplinary laboratory” based on the Munk School for Global Affairs and Public Policy of the University of Toronto, in Canada. With the focus on denouncing and combating high-tech human rights abuses who do both the private sector What state actorshis work has been essential in recent years to reveal cases of cyber espionage, censorship, use of commercial spyware and other abuses.

Citizen Lab was founded in 2001 by political science professor and philosopher Ronald Deibert. Then a professor of international relations at the Canadian campus, he was contacted by the Ford Foundation to see if he would be interested in a project on information technology and global security. He offered the Lab as a project, presenting it as “counter-espionage for global civil society& rdquor ;, and launched it within the University with the Ford Foundation initial grant of $250,000.

The laboratory declaresindependent of government or corporate interests” and has also received funding from, among others, the George Soros Open Society Foundations, the Hewlett Foundation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian International Development Research Center.

Currently the Lab has 25 full-time researchers, experts who, as Deibert recalled in an interview in January with AP, “could earn five or six times more in the private sector & rdquor ;. It also has about half a dozen associates and fellows”. Among the latter is Elies Campo Cid, who wrote the ‘Catalangate’ report.

Evolution and milestones

Citizen Lab’s first major project was born in 2003, studying how online search results varied by country. That spawned an alliance with Harvard and became the OpenNet Initiative, which published annual reports on censorship in more than 30 countries. Over time, the lab’s work shifted to focus more on civil society and the exposure of corporations that sell software to repressive regimes.

Their detailed investigations and detailed analyzes they have produced a steady trickle of revelations. In 2008, for example, Citizen Lab reported that China was spying on Skype users, searching in the talks for conflicting issues for the Beijing regime such as Taiwan or Falun Gong. In 2009 brought GhostNet to lighta Chinese cyber-espionage operation that spanned 103 countries to follow the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile. In 2015 they revealed systematic attacks that have been in production since 2008 in countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for America to opponents and independent media. And in 2016 they also exposed Chinese censorship on WeChat.

In 2016 Citizen Lab revealed that Pegasus, the program developed by the Israeli company NSO Group that is at the center of the ‘Catalangate’ scandal, was being taking advantage of vulnerabilities in Apple products. A year later he also exposed Pegasus espionage of journalists, lawyers and members of civil society in Mexico. And in 2018 he presented “with high confidence & rdquor; conclusions that the controversial program infected the phone of a Saudi dissident in Canada, an operation that was attributed to Saudi Arabia and that is believed to have been used to spy on Jamal Kashoggi, the journalist whose murder it is believed that the prince authorized Muhammad Bin Salman. In December of last year they denounced that representatives of the United Arab Emirates installed the program on the phone of Khashoggi’s wife months before the murder.

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The lab’s work, which also explores vulnerabilities in technological tools and recently exposed those of some applications related to covidhas been influential and also applauded.

Citizen Lab, for example, collaborated with Facebook (now Meta) to investigate the espionage with Pegasus of 1,400 WhatsApp users that was detected in 2019. In that investigation, Catalan politicians from pro-independence parties appeared among those affected. Facebook (now Meta) sued NSO. It has also sued the manufacturer of Pegasus Manzanaand in its lawsuit announcement in December of last year, the Cupertino company praised Citizen Lab.


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