More and more governments are using cyberweapons like malware and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against internal critics and dissidents, making online attacks the second-most-common form of repression after actual arrests, according to a new report from human rights group Freedom House.
“Cyberattacks became more common due in part to the increased availability of relevant technology, which is sold in a weakly regulated market, and in part to inadequate security practices among many of the targeted groups,” the group states in its 2017 Freedom on the Net report, adding that falling prices and widening proliferation of cyberweapon technology means that even local officials and police have access.
“The relatively low cost of cyberattack tools has enabled not only central governments but also local government officials and law enforcement agencies to obtain and employ them against their perceived foes,” like human rights advocates or watchdogs seeking to expose corruption and abuse, the report warns.
Freedom House says governments in 34 out of the 65 countries assessed in the report used cyberattacks against regime critics — up from 25 last year.
“Independent blogs and news websites are increasingly being taken down through distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, activists’ social media accounts are being disabled or hijacked, and opposition politicians and human rights defenders are being subjected to surveillance through the illegal hacking of their phones and computers,” the authors conclude.
Technical attacks like these were “the second-most common form of internet control assessed by Freedom House, behind arrests of users for political or social content,” the report said. The ubiquitous availability of such tools to governments is underlined by the existence of ISS World, more commonly known as the “Wiretappers’ Ball,” a trade show where hackers-for-hire display their wares.
Websites of independent news organizations or opposition groups were taken down by DDoS or other attacks in 18 countries, from Azerbaijan to Venezuela, Freedom House said. Online surveillance using malware or other hacking techniques was reported in 17 countries, the report states.
And in 16 countries, hackers with suspected links to the government or ruling party hijacked social media accounts and news sites in order to deface them or spread disinformation. In Belarus, on the eve of a “Freedom Day” demonstration, the Facebook page of a protest organizer was hacked in order to post fake comments discouraging people from attending.