Amid political crisis, Tunisia’s Saied targets his critics online
There’s new evidence that the U.S. government is using NSO Group’s surveillance tools. We already know about the FBI’s purchase of NSO’s infamous Pegasus spyware back in 2019. But this week, documents reviewed by the New York Times showed that the Israeli surveillance tech giant went under contract in 2021 with a company called Riva Networks that was operating as a front for the U.S. government. This gave government agents — the documents don’t disclose what agency or department they worked with — access to a geolocation tool built by NSO that would allow agents to track anyone through their mobile device, without their knowledge.
White House staff say they knew nothing of it before the Times’ story and that the contract — which appears to remain active — stands in violation of U.S. Commerce Department sanctions. The revelations shouldn’t be surprising — there have been other clues about NSO working its way into U.S. government contracts. And they make the Biden administration’s recent ban on commercial spyware look like quite the toothless tiger.
Maybe Pegasus isn’t really so bad? The Indian government says it is a “PR problem,” more than anything else. Last week, the Financial Times reported that officials at India’s Ministry of Defense put out a tender for new spyware, with the express intention of contracting with a surveillance technology company that is “less controversial” than NSO Group. They are willing to pay up to $120 million for it. Pegasus has been found on the devices of journalists, human rights defenders and opposition politicians in countries around the world, including India. When Coda’s podcast team dug into the use of Pegasus in India, we talked with 16 Indian lawyers and activists, many involved in representing Dalit and indigenous communities, whose phones were infected with the spyware. Soon afterward, they were accused of plotting to bring down the Modi government. For a compelling look at the real-life effects of this technology, give this episode a listen.
There will be likely digital ramifications to Uganda’s new law criminalizing homosexuality. Although same-sex relationships have long been outlawed in Uganda, the country’s new Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which is almost sure to pass, will criminalize LGBTQ identity itself. It also covers a host of actions associated with LGBTQ people’s rights, including the act of “promoting” or speaking about LGBTQ issues in both traditional and digital media. Journalists in the country are taking note. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, a reporter who wished to remain anonymous suggested that the law will make it nearly impossible to cover topics affecting LGBTQ communities. “It is like they are telling us to leave them: don’t touch them,” she said.
TUNISIA’S PERPETUAL STATE OF EMERGENCY
Attacks on Tunisian civil society and labor groups are on the rise on social media. The country’s political crisis seems to be scaling new heights, amid rising rates of inflation and unemployment and political cleavages exacerbated by President Kais Saied’s 2021 decision to dissolve the government and rule by decree. The president drew fierce public condemnation over a February speech in which he blamed aspects of the country’s overlapping crises on migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, using inflammatory, racist language and accusing Black African migrants of bringing “violence and criminality” to the north African country.
Journalists, union leaders and NGO workers who have been covering or speaking out about these issues are facing wave after wave of smear campaigns, mainly on Facebook, that they say mirror Saied’s rhetoric. Ramadan Ben Omar, who works on migrant rights issues with the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, has steadily spoken out against Saied’s anti-migrant rhetoric. On Facebook, Ben Omar has since been accused of treason and “undermining the state’s image internationally.” In an interview with the Beirut-based digital rights group SMEX, Ben Omar explained that harassment campaigns against him have “spread from Facebook into the real world.” “Some accused me of treason simply because I supported irregular migrants and my criticism of the state’s policy towards undocumented migration,” he said.
Looming large for anyone criticizing the current regime is Tunisia’s relatively new cybersecurity decree, issued in late 2022. Under Decree 54, anyone found guilty of “deliberately using communication networks and information systems to produce, promote, publish or send false information or rumors” can face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $16,000. The law also gives authorities broad latitude to monitor the communications of suspected violators.
Laws like these have become all too common for regimes that fear the power of their critics, and they become extra potent in situations like this one. Tunisia has been in a legal “state of emergency” almost continuously since the 2011 revolution that brought the ousting of longtime president Ben Ali — a moment that made Tunisia a beacon of hope for real democratic progress in the region and one that was spurred in part by digital organizing. Then again, anyone who was part of Tunisian civil society before the 2011 revolution knows the tactics well. Some of the tools have changed — social media and digital surveillance have come a long way since then — but the authoritarian playbook is largely the same.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- For more on Tunisia’s trajectory since the 2011 revolution, I recommend this recent essay for Global Voices by Saoussen Ben Cheikh, in which she shows how the state of emergency has become a “permanent feature of governance.”
- U.S. immigration authorities have been using administrative subpoenas to demand data from public schools, abortion clinics and even media organizations. WIRED has all the details, in a great new investigation by Dhruv Mehrotra.
- More shots have been fired in the AI ethics war, which seems to feature three camps — the fast-moving AI bros, the slightly more sensitive bros who want to exercise some caution while still profiting off AI and people focused on the actual harms that AI is already causing. Prominent members of the last group authored the 2021 Stochastic Parrots paper that led to Google’s firing of Timnit Gebru. They now work together at the DAIR Institute and put out an open letter last week, in response to an earlier letter, from the sensitive bros. Both are worth a read. If you’re wondering how any of this matters for the rest of us, check out this roundup piece from TechCrunch.