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23 June 2016

Living Under Digital Surveillance: Human Rights Defender Perceptions and Experiences


In November 2015, at the Eighth Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders, Front Line Defenders (FLD) asked human rights defenders (HRDs) from across Asia, Africa, Americas, Europe and the Middle East/North Africa to share experiences of living under digital surveillance and the perceived impact this has on their work and lives.

Over the past few years, there have been a number of high profile investigations and revelations of the extent of intrusive surveillance capabilities by many governments around the world. These are the same countries where FLD has seen a harmful erosion of human rights protection in the same time period, with tighter controls introduced on the media and human rights groups carrying out legitimate work.

Many countries are also introducing laws granting intelligence agencies new surveillance powers. In June 2015, the Colombian military announced “Plan Minerva” mean to modernize the armed forces, but which also amplified the capacities of Military Intelligence. In Pakistan, the legislature introduced the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill in April 2015. Pakistani HRDs say the bill puts privacy and freedom of speech at risk.

These and other intrusive surveillance powers are concerning in the context of a widespread backlash against HRDs. In response, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 70/161 on 17 December 2015 which recognizes the role of HRDs and the need for their protection. The declaration calls upon all States to ensure that:

"Information and communications technologies are not used in a manner that amounts to arbitrary or unlawful interference with the privacy of individuals or the intimidation of human rights defenders."

Government-backed campaigns continue to harass, discredit, intimidate, attack, criminalize, and even murder HRDs. Of the 156 cases of HRD killings FLD documented in 2015, many had reported death threats, harassment, and surveillance in the months leading up to their murders.

Yet, despite the evidence that many governments increasingly possess surveillance technologies, there is need for greater investigation into how states use these capabilities to target civil society and HRDs. The nature of the surveillance itself is that it can be very difficult to detect and even harder to verify. As such, many of the HRDs in contact with FLD report both generalized fears of surveillance and specific incidents that they are unable to verify.

This briefing aims to capture some HRD experiences of living under digital surveillance. Further, it looks at how this type of targeting interacts with and underpins traditional tactics by the state to intimidate, harass and silence HRDs. Instead of focusing on the methods or tools of digital surveillance, this briefing addresses the impact of digital surveillance on the emotional and physical well-being of individuals.

The information presented is based on 10 interviews conducted with HRDs from 9 countries in November 2015. Additionally, it draws on the broader observations of FLD digital security work over 12 years supporting and providing training to HRDs in relation to digital information and communication. Concluding recommendations are presented which aim to help create an enabling environment for HRDs to continue their work in the context of growing digital surveillance.

What is Digital Surveillance?

Digital surveillance is any intentional monitoring of digital communication or information. In the case of human rights defenders, digital surveillance threatens the defenders, their families, their colleagues, and those for whom they work. FLD has observed a growing trend in targeted digital attacks against civil society and HRDs. Citizen Lab and others revealed that intrusive spyware being sold by British-Germany company, Gamma International, and Italian company, Hacking Team, had been found to be used in at least 42 countries. Further investigations were able to verify spyware found on the computers of activists from Bahrain, UAE, Morocco and Ethiopia. Information leaked by Edward Snowden and others highlighted the vastness of surveillance powers in possession of intelligence agencies in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

HRDs report to FLD their experiences of targeted digital attacks and surveillance with growing frequency. FLD has received reports of HRDs' phones being tapped and email and social networking accounts hacked in order to extract information and contacts in their networks. Information on websites, social networking accounts, and blogs have been hacked and modified to intimidate, as well as spread false information or viruses. HRDs' computers and mobile phones have been seized or stolen or infected with spying software that turn those devices into tools for tracking, listening and recording.

Politics of fear: Normalising government surveillance

In many countries, anti-terrorist legislation has given security forces and intelligence agencies more freedom to interfere and monitor communications. Digital surveillance is often presented as a necessity and the guarantor of state security and safety. Through new legal frameworks, media campaigns and the politics of fear, governments have created acceptance of digital surveillance by the majority within society.

There is this assumption that it is part of the security agencies' work to do surveillance on people, to monitor communication because of the national security. This narrative is very popular in many countries I believe, and so in Pakistan. People face surveillance but they don't want to report it for so many reasons, or they think it is part of their work, so it is normal.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Pakistan)

I think there is a very small minority that is aware of surveillance and even a smaller group that is worried about the fact that a lot of our information is being taken by the government…A lot of people don't think surveillance is a bad thing. Since I am a good person, I am fine. Let them put me under surveillance. I am a good person. People don't think about it as in this is my privacy, you shouldn't be there.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Malaysia)

Many HRDs assume that some sort of digital surveillance into their work is inevitable. Like other members of their communities and nations, they view digital surveillance as an inevitable part of life and, in particular, of the work they do.

In Guatemala, we, as part of the social movement and the human rights movement, are used to act with some sort of cynicism towards digital surveillance, since we take it for granted that it exists. And as we take it for granted, we start to act with some sort of tolerance and acceptance towards a practice, which should be unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.
Woman Human Rights Defender (Guatemala)

Digital surveillance allows third parties, both State and private actors, to create user profiles, map user networks and have direct access to the content of communications. HRDs, whether working on LGBTI rights, environmental justice or collective rights, as well as journalists and political opposition, have been systematically targeted with digital surveillance practices in almost every country in the world. Both military and police intelligence play an important role in digital surveillance, but digital surveillance has also been privatized and is now accessible to anyone who is willing to pay.

In 2005 a member of the justice system in Guatemala alerted us that the Intelligence Office of the Presidency had been building [psychological, social and political] profiles of around 800 people from the human rights movement. These profiles were generated from information obtained through surveillance of their communication, including their phone calls, emails and obviously also using physical surveillance in those cases they considered necessary…And it's not only government institutions that do digital surveillance. We have also registered private actors having access to information from digital surveillance done by the military intelligence.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Guatemala)

Digital surveillance often takes place outside the national legal framework and some intelligence agencies have faced judicial processes after their illegal practices had been revealed. However, in many countries, governments have devised legal strategies to adjust their laws and bring these practices into the legal realm.

The cybercrime bill in Pakistan is really draconian, cutting freedom of expression and access to information in online spaces and also victimizing political activists who are using the Internet or social media for their activism. I don't think there are a lot of people talking about [mass surveillance] in Pakistan or holding security agencies accountable in terms of their actions or doing mass surveillance or tapping phones of people and things like that.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Pakistan)

Digital surveillance is often combined with traditional strategies of physical surveillance and information gathering. During detentions and house searches, security forces or intelligence agencies often confiscate HRDs’ electronic devices and access their information during or after the detention or raid.

When I was arrested in 2009 and brought before the security agency headquarters we were ordered to open our emails for them to go through our emails. And this has not only happened to me. It has happened in the past with others, where individuals were compelled to open their emails for the agents to go through them to see and then they can link them to any offence.
- Male Human Rights Defender (Gambia)

Besides collecting information on HRDs' work and private lives, one of the main objectives of digital surveillance is to intimidate and to let targets know they are being watched. Current technology no longer depends on voice recorders; most digital surveillance passes unnoticed, unless the aggressor wants a specific person to know he or she is being monitored.

The goal of interfering, of listening, of surveillance…is to collect information about what we do and also to intimidate us…When you make a call you can hear a recorder coming on. And you can hear background noise, conversations that sound like police. So that is when you notice that your call is being listened to and they want you to know they are listening.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Mexico)

You take your phone and then someone calls you and someone else picks it up. All these strange things start to happen and you realize that it becomes very real…I always felt they had more important people to deal with. After that, I realized that it is a real possibility that you are being followed. After these three years everybody in our office feels they are being followed and that everything is being tapped. Be open-minded. Expect to be followed wherever you are going, to have police around and watching you. It is part of the expectation.
- Woman Human Rights defender (Malaysia)

What is the impact of digital surveillance on the lives of human rights defenders?


Fear is an objective of political violence. Government’s retain control by generating fear in their populations. Digital and physical surveillance are part of this strategy to impose fear.

Fear can paralyse people, isolate them, fragment organizational structures and impose silence. It is the perfect tool for creating a state of impunity, a climate in which aggressors can act freely and repeat their practices over and over again.

There is surveillance…which has the specific intention to paralyse and sow fear. Instead of telling you, we are going to kill you or something like that, they say, we know what you're doing, we know where you are, you are being watched.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Mexico)

The way they call me was like...are you this person? We are from the Pakistani Intelligence Service and we want to meet you. We are standing in front of your house. That was very intimidating. And I was really worried because most of my activism, my family doesn't know about it. If they would know, like my father or my brother, they obviously would try to stop me doing my work, which actually poses some threats to the family or to me. I was afraid my family would know that the State Security Agency is outside our house.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Pakistan)

Surveillance affects me psychologically, whenever I sit and have a keyboard in front of me. I ask myself, does anybody out there have the capacity to look at what I am doing? Who else out there is looking at what I am doing? And as a result of that I am extra careful with the very choice of words. I am highly selective. I don't want to give the world words that can be given an interpretation that would put me in trouble.…All those that know the security implications have these things in their mind. It is like a threat hanging over you.
- Male Human Rights Defender (Gambia)

Interviews with HRDs about digital and non-digital threats indicate that many HRDs are concerned that acknowledging or discussing fear can be seen as a weakness and therefore make attempts to minimise or hide fear from family and friends. This repression of fear can lead to exhaustion or chronic psychological and physical discomfort.

Exhaustion and Depression

The psychosocial impact of surveillance and fear affects HRDs’ physical well-being. Constant exposure to surveillance and related stress accumulates in the body and can develop into illness, exhaustion and depression.

Afterwards I realized. I was able to maintain calm for the outside world, but I was terribly tired. I almost didn't sleep. In my work I maintained calm, because I didn't want to pass on [my fears] to others. However [the surveillance] affected my work and my effectiveness. I had to do my things and suddenly my thoughts would get distracted and I couldn't concentrate on what I was doing.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Bolivia)

It actually cut off my creative life. I have a very big creative life, I write, I draw, I dance. And that is all gone after this period, I don't do this any more.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Malaysia)


According to philosopher Michel Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish, permanent surveillance in penitential institutions results in self-censorship, and by the same logic whole populations may be controlled. The knowledge of external threats, judgement, risks, and expectations is inherent in daily life, and people regulate their actions accordingly. External power need not directly act on subjects, but rather, subjects regulate themselves. In states with known digital surveillance capabilities, these tools are used not only to collect information about HRDs' work and private lives, but also to impose the expectation of self-censorship on critical voices in society.

The psychosocial impact affects our right to freedom of expression. It forces us to be careful with what we say, or not communicate or say specific things…Distrust is such that we don't even trust those mechanisms that should give us the possibility to communicate safely.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Guatemala)

I don't think there is anybody that feels 100% free to express their thoughts, because we live in an environment where you don't know who is a State security agent. You don't know who can be working for the State. Somebody can claim to be a human rights worker and work undercover as a State security agent. Somebody can claim to be a teacher and be an undercover agent. Somebody can claim to come from abroad and you perceive him as a visitor and do development work and actually provide information to the State apparatus. So it is complex matter.
- Male Human Rights Defender (Gambia)

I think the major change is self-censorship. Whenever I post something on the Internet I force myself to give it thought if I really want to put this online and what risk this can pose to me. There is a lot of stuff I want to say on Twitter but I don't. Most of my work is online and through digital activism, which actually makes up a huge part of my advocacy work. I feel I am really hesitant in talking about some issues, which I feel might attract the attention of State actors.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Pakistan)

Until this job I was a very normal kid. I liked partying, I liked going to concerts, like every other girl my age. I liked to dress up and go out, and hang out at bars. But after this I am very conscious about ever being photographed in a short skirt, because once the government gets any compromised photos of you smoking or drinking this goes on to the internet. And as innocent as it is, tomorrow I will have absolutely no social value.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Malaysia)

Gendered Threats

Specific digital threats against women and LGBTI populations that emerge from digital surveillance often end up having a strong sexual content, including threats of rape and other sexual violence. These threats are sometimes made by political representatives or members of the army and police.

Our women colleagues don't have that many tools to protect their data. So what happens is that when they publish information on Facebook, their photos are taken and reposted with threatening and misogynistic comments.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Mexico)

A colleague received death threats, rape threats and people were asking for her to be burnt to death. (…) It was a prolonged thing. I understand she didn't get any sleep, she was being harassed 24 hours a day, and people were trying to find her house. And the problem was that the police weren't condemning these actions or responding to these threats.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Malaysia)

Because our government is very conservative and homophobic they spread hate speech all over the social media, even in their speeches the politicians use hate speech against LGBTI people.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Macedonia)

Family, Friends and Community

Digital and physical surveillance also affect people that are close to HRDs. Whenever HRDs' communications are compromised, so too are those of their family members. While aggressive acts may not directly target HRDs because of their political profile or their security practices, aggressors sometimes target the HRDs’ family and friends instead. This constant pressure generates tensions and even splits between HRDs and their close family and friends.

I am more conscious and careful when it comes to my family. Because I know that if I am monitored the people that are in touch with me are also monitored. I try to be very cautious when I speak with my family or when I talk to my son or whenever I am travelling not to talk about the places where I am going…It is not only about my security it is also about the security of the people I am talking to.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Pakistan)

My husband had to pick me up, bring me and accompany me all the time. It was so annoying for both him as for me that it affected the spontaneity of our relationship and our freedom of movement.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Bolivia)

My family and friends were really scared when they heard that I am under surveillance. It is not only me. Everybody who spoke with me about their private matters was shocked, because somebody else was listening as well…Many of my old friends stopped communicating with me when I became very prominent and active in the media. I have many friendships that have died. I think they are afraid to meet me in public, to speak to me in public. It is something that now has become reality in Macedonia. People are very much afraid.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Macedonia)

They took over my office for a week and went through all the documents. We photocopied whatever they needed...This reduced the confidence that our communities have in us when the State does this. They should be sure that we can protect them but when we are helpless their situation is worse.
- Male Human Rights Defender (Kenya)

Strategies for coping with digital surveillance

To counteract and minimize the impact of digital surveillance, many HRDs adopt well-selected practices and attitudes. These practices start with being aware and analysis of risks, and devising and implementing both personal and organisational security plans.

First of all you need to be aware that any information you share on your phone is not private. It is possible that they listen to you, that they intercept you or use your information. We understand that we cannot share any type of information through our phone, or normal email, or Facebook or any other digital medium…We have several security protocols that not only are related to digital security, but also incorporate a holistic vision of security.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Mexico)

It is basically a series of behavioural elements and personal discipline with the premise of not transferring any information through your phone that is sensitive or that can put at risk our lives, our work or that of any other person or organization with which we are working.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Guatemala)

Digital Security Tools as Psychosocial Strategy

Digital security tools offer HRDs the possibility to act on the threat of digital surveillance. By removing the feeling of powerlessness, digital tools themselves constitute part of a psychosocial response to the threat of surveillance.

If I had an instrument that guaranteed me that my email would not end up in the hands of a third party that would be marvellous. That would give me the security of knowing that I can use email without any risk.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Bolivia)

We made this strategy that when we want to talk about work we are not going to use messages, but we use these secure apps, which have been made by trusted people.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Pakistan)

Basically what we do is accompanying community communication processes, focusing on both technical aspects and content. The fact that we are involved in the technical aspects has made us work across different aspects from Free Software, to Digital Security and Digital Self-Defence, up till Free Hardware.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Mexico)

Although recognizing the impact of digital surveillance on an organization and its members, few human rights organizations have designed or implemented security protocols. Lack of financial resources and staff makes prioritizing security issues difficult if not impossible for many defenders.

Drafting security policies for an organization is very important for an organization that works on digital security. We should also have a security policy. However the fact that we have a lack of resources, a lack of staff, a lack of time, so much work, not many people in the organization, means that we haven't drafted any security policy as of now. We want to have a good security policy not only for the people that are working there now, but also to set a good precedent for new staff. The organization is also collaborating with others in Pakistan.
- Woman Human Rights Defender (Pakistan)

To improve security of digital information and communication FLD recommends the following:

  • Surveillance Self-Defence; Electronic Frontier Foundation tips, tools and how-tos for Safer Online Communication
  • Security in-a-Box, Front Line Defenders and Tactical Technology Collective; a collection of tools and tactics for digital security
  • The Digital First Aid Kit; a collaborative effort providing preliminary support for people facing the most common types of digital threats

Thank you notes

Front Line Defenders would like to thank all the HRDs who took time and shared their story with us. Also special thanks to people who wrote and contributed to this briefing: Moritz Tenthoff, Tanya O'Carroll, Wojtek Bogusz, Pablo Zavala, Friedhelm Weinberg, Ali Ravi, Samir Nassar, Ed Ó Donnabháin, Erin Kilbride.