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‘CSI of cyberspace’ wins $1-million grant

Ron Deibert is the founder of The Citizen Lab.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A collective of digital privacy specialists based at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs this week became the first group based in Canada to win a $1-million prize from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation. The annual award is given to sustain the work of "creative and effective institutions."

For more than a decade, the Citizen Lab – a "CSI of cyberspace," as founder Ron Deibert calls it – has exposed wrongdoing: everyone from Chinese hackers spying on the Dalai Lama to technology companies in the West that sell surveillance tools to repressive Middle East regimes.

The Citizen Lab has recently joined the chorus sounding the alarm about Western spy agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).

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The Globe and Mail spoke to Mr. Deibert on Friday.

Walk us through the lab's

history.

I founded the Citizen Lab in 2001. I'm a political scientist. I love technology, but I couldn't code my way out of a paper bag. My idea at the time was to bring together people who had skill sets that I lacked to do research on Internet security issues from a broad-based human rights perspective.

What I wanted to do was dig beneath the surface and expose the hidden competition for power in cyberspace that is not really transparent to the average user.

Why is the MacArthur grant a game-changer for the Citizen Lab?

If we start taking money from the U.S. State Department or the Canadian government directly, or from companies like Google, that might start to prejudice our impartiality.

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I've had to bust my butt finding research grants. What this award allows us to do is start the process of having a permanent endowment. That means the Citizen Lab will exist indefinitely if I drop dead.

How many people do you have around you?

I'm the mouthpiece of the lab, but we have a core staff of 15 researchers from various backgrounds. We also have students, postdoctoral fellows, doctoral students, who come through the lab and maintain associations.

We also have a large network of partners in just about every region of the world. We just released a report on Somalia, where we found a Canadian company providing censorship technology to all three Internet service providers in Somalia.

The Citizen Lab seems unique in that it doesn't look at digital privacy through a national lens.

We'll go wherever it goes.

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And we're not an advocacy group.

The Citizen Lab doesn't condemn or pressure for a certain policy changes.

We see ourselves as a CSI of cyberspace. We issue these very detailed evidence-based reports and then leave it to others to do the advocacy or the campaigning.

Lately, the leaks from Edward Snowden have prompted you to say we need a "new social contract" for agencies such as CSEC and the NSA.

We have gone through a historically epochal change in communications technology. At the same time, these vestiges of the Cold War are expanding their powers dramatically.

And this happens without any public conversation. We need to have a new social contract about that.

We need people who not only understand the wiring and the coding, but who actually dig down beneath the surface to find out whether there is something prejudicial to human rights.

If we don't start to produce people like that on a large scale, then we are really going to sleepwalk into something other than democracy. And that's what we've seen now through the Snowden revelations, is how we've been duped by these enormous globe-spanning signals-intelligence agencies that have subverted the Internet for mass surveillance.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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