In 2018, The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto reported how Montreal-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz’s mobile phone was infected with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The infection was attributed to a Pegasus operator linked to Saudi Arabia. Abdulaziz was a close friend of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the infection provided full access to Abdulaziz’s phone. This included conversations with Khashoggi in the weeks prior to his killing. 

Abdulaziz was subjected to other threats as well. Earlier, in spring 2018, two Saudi emissaries visited Abdulaziz in Montreal and tried to get him to return to Saudi Arabia. They threatened he would end up in jail if he refused.

Despite the seriousness of these events, the Canadian government’s response to this case has been limited. In 2018, the RCMP began investigating the digital targeting of Abdulaziz, but nothing concrete appears to have transpired. 

Safeguarding democracies against authoritarian sharp power

Is Canada’s first proposed foreign influence legislation ruthless or toothless?

The digital attack on democracy

In 2020, Canadian authorities informed Abdulaziz that he might be a target of Saudi authorities. While the Canadian government repeats its commitment to human rights, it remains unclear what its specific strategy is for this and other kinds of transnational repression. In a recent report, we outline five steps the government could take to better combat transnational repression.

Defining transnational repression

Abdulaziz was the victim of multiple forms of transnational repression, including digital. Transnational repression occurs when authoritarian regimes use different methods – from physical attacks to assassinations – to silence activists living outside their borders. 

It involves the extension of authoritarian practices to individuals who may feel “safe” because they live outside their country of origin. Digital transnational repression arises when authoritarian regimes use digital tools against these same individuals. Authoritarian regimes may use a range of technologies, such as sophisticated and highly intrusive spyware and malware; harassment using bots and trolls; disinformation; and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which inundate a targeted server with traffic to disrupt it. 

Recently, the Citizen Lab examined the impact of digital transnational repression on activists and dissidents who left their country of origin, and moved or fled to Canada. Our findings show how pernicious digital transnational repression is. Interviewees identified numerous harmful consequences, including self-censorship, behavioural modification, social isolation, anxiety, fear and depression. In several cases, this type of repression happened alongside physical and offline repression. Interviewees spoke of being constantly fearful and changing daily patterns to avoid the possibility of in-person altercations or surveillance.

The growing availability of digital technologies and internet connectivity has given authoritarian regimes powerful new tools. They can surveil, attack and otherwise impair the work of activists living abroad. Transnational repression is not an isolated phenomenon limited to activists organizing against the practices of their countries of origin. It forms part of a pattern of spreading global authoritarianism and the impairment of human rights and democracy.

Inadequate government response to address transnational repression

Transnational repression leads to numerous violations of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and assembly; and the right to life, liberty and security of the person. Under international human rights law, the Canadian government has an obligation to protect all persons within its borders against such violations. Yet, the Canadian government’s response to all forms of transnational repression has been inadequate. 

There has been a first reading of a bill that would institute a Foreign Agent Registry in Canada (Bill S-237). The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has also highlighted the threat of “foreign interference” and “foreign-influenced activities.” Transnational repression, which entails threats by foreign states to the human rights of individuals within Canada, likely falls within the scope of these activities. 

The FunctionaryThere’s a lot going on in the public service.

Stay in the know with veteran reporter Kathryn May. Sign up for routine and out-of-the-ordinary news about the public service with The Functionary, our new newsletter.

In its annual report 2020, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians observed that dissidents in Canada have been targeted through cyber-enabled tracking and surveillance. 

CSIS has also noted that threats to Canada’s national security include the proliferation of advanced cyber tools, which “enable a growing list of actors to conduct espionage, sabotage, endanger civilians, undermine democratic values and exert foreign influence.” CSIS director David Vigneault identified threats to individuals in Canada intended to “instill fear, silence dissent, and pressure political opponents” as a facet of foreign interference. 

However, a detailed discussion is absent about the impact of these tools on dissidents and activists who have fled to Canada, or how to address it.

Ultimately, however, the Canadian government views these threats through the broader lens of foreign interference. It has failed to discuss in-depth cases of transnational repression or articulate a specific policy response. Government action around foreign interference has tended to focus on threats to critical infrastructure or democratic institutions, with the occasional mention of the targeting of activists and dissidents. 

The United States has started to speak specifically of the threat of transnational repression and the need to support impacted communities. The U.S. Department of Justice has taken action, such as prosecuting individuals involved in schemes of transnational repression. However, the Canadian government has no clear and specific action to address this issue. At-risk communities of dissidents and activists in Canada remain without a clear avenue for reporting threats or seeking assistance.

Five recommendations to address protection gaps

In our recent report, Citizen Lab makes five preliminary recommendations for the government to address the gaps in protections for activists who are seeking protection while living in Canada. 

First, Canadian federal agencies should explicitly recognize the threat of transnational repression, and the specific risks to vulnerable activists and their human rights. By viewing this activity through the lens of transnational repression, it can be distinguished from threats to critical infrastructure and democratic institutions, which involve different types of targets and responses. 

Second, the Canadian government should consider tasking a specific agency to address the issue of transnational repression, rather than rely solely on law enforcement and intelligence agencies. This is particularly important in light of justified mistrust among racialized communities in Canada toward police and intelligence bodies. Such an agency could play a role in receiving reports of transnational repression, referring cases to appropriate agencies and co-ordinating within the community and the private sector. Resources could be developed to specifically address this issue and support impacted communities. 

Third, the Canadian government must ensure robust resettlement and refugee protection programs in Canada. This guarantees the secure legal status of activists, thus making acts of transnational repression harder to execute. 

Fourth, the Canadian government should show zero tolerance in formal speeches, public policy and foreign policy with respect to transnational repression. Further, Canada should hold perpetrators of digital transnational repression to account. For example, there should be targeted sanctions or the expulsion of diplomats who are involved in transnational repression. Finally, Canada should enable and facilitate victims of transnational repression to pursue legal remedies in Canada. 

The Canadian government has made repeated commitments to uphold human rights and to support refugees and immigrants in Canada. These commitments should include a concerted strategy to tackle transnational repression and impede the long arm of global authoritarianism. 

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission, or a letter to the editor. 
Noura Aljizawi
Noura Aljizawi is a research officer at The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (University of Toronto). Her work takes an in-depth look at digital transnational repression, digital authoritarianism and human rights, and digital surveillance more broadly. Twitter @nouraaljizawi 
Siena Anstis
Siena Anstis is a senior legal advisor with The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (University of Toronto). Previously, she worked as a litigation associate at Morrison & Foerster in New York City and clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada. Read her writing on transnational repression and other issues related to digital technologies and human rights.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License