Researchers at U of T’s Citizen Lab targeted by undercover agents about spyware studies

Questioned about studies on spyware used on friends of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Researchers at U of T’s Citizen Lab targeted by undercover agents about spyware studies

Undercover agents have been questioning U of T Citizen Lab researchers in recent months about their study of an Israeli spyware that was used on murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s friends, reported The Associated Press.

Agents have approached researchers twice in the past two months claiming to be “socially conscious investors” interested in partnerships. During meetings set up after online contact, the agents questioned the researchers about their personal lives and work regarding the NSO Group, a surveillance technology firm based in Israel that has sold a clandestine software called “Pegasus” to governments seeking to spy on iPhones.

The Associated Press reported that Bahr Abdul Razzak, a Citizen Lab researcher, was approached in December by an investigator who called himself Gary Bowman.

Bowman’s questions to Razzak included, “Do you pray?”, “Why do you write only about NSO?”, and “Do you hate Israel?”. Another Citizen Lab researcher, John Scott-Railton, was later approached on January 9 and was asked similar questions.

The Associated Press was not able to reach either of the agents, nor is there any evidence that they are linked to the NSO, which has stated that it is not involved.

Citizen Lab’s research into the NSO Group is part of its larger initiative on tracking “nation state spyware,” said senior research fellow Bill Marczak on CNN in October.

The lab concluded with “high confidence” that Omar Abdulaziz, a close friend of Khashoggi and fellow Saudi dissident, had been under surveillance using the Pegasus software. Abdulaziz lives in Quebec.

“When a government buys Pegasus,” said Marczak, “What they do is they can send a text message to someone’s phone containing a link, and if they convince the person to click on that link in the text message, then the phone becomes infected and the government can see anything on the phone — including pictures, contacts, listening into calls, watching text messages, and even turning on the camera and microphone.”

Citizen Lab is a Munk School of Global Affairs laboratory that studies human rights issues using computer science and social sciences techniques.

Beyond résumé padding

One student explains how her passion project turned into an incredible academic opportunity

Beyond résumé padding

During my first year of university, I saw a small announcement on Blackboard for one of the anthropology courses I was taking, advertising the Richard Charles Lee Insights through Asia Challenge (ITAC).

ITAC is a competition run by the Munk School of Global Affairs that gives winners the opportunity to conduct an independent research project on the topic of their choice, related to an Asian issue. Winning projects are allocated up to $7,000 in funding, making it possible for students to travel and conduct original research in Asia. The competition is open to all U of T students in the Faculty of Arts & Science, both undergraduate and graduate, including those unaffiliated with the Munk School.

Taking on an independent project did not sound realistic with my existing workload, especially knowing it was entirely possible I wouldn’t win. Still, I was inspired to partake in the competition, perhaps because of my passion for the issues of slums and inequality in India, which I had touched upon in some of my other courses.

Feeling as though I couldn’t tackle the project all by myself, I approached my friend Amanda McKinley about joining me. Amanda also introduced me to Alexandre Gignac and Siddhartha Sengupta, two of her classmates at UTM, both third-year Political Science specialists. The Munk School had encouraged students from different academic backgrounds to collaborate on projects. With my background in Anthropology and Marketing combined with my group members’ backgrounds in Political Science, Psychology, and History, we managed to articulate our ideas and come up with a unique research idea for the competition.

The Munk School provided us with a great deal of support in the process. Before our team submitted our application, we attended a writing proposal workshop, which gave us essential guidelines and information. It also boosted our confidence in the possibility of actually winning the competition.

This was also when I started to realize that participation itself was providing our team with such valuable experience that we would not have been able to gain in the classroom. “I figured that even if we didn’t win, I would have learnt how to write a proper research proposal and I would get to meet other students who were interested in the same things as myself,” said Amanda.

We were surprised by the small number of students participating in the competition, particularly because of its broad criteria for eligibility. When I spoke to other friends from university about it, they hadn’t even heard of such an opportunity. Even after we discussed it, many did not apply because they believed they didn’t have a chance at winning.

Before our team discovered that we were one of the winners, we felt exactly the same way. “I, and I think all four of us, didn’t actually think we were going to win. We put our best effort into it but it was still the Munk School of Global Affairs. Schools like Kennedy and Woodrow Wilson balk at some of the research Munk does,” said Siddhartha.

“It seemed too good to be true,” added Amanda.

But here we are eight months later: our team won the competition, traveled independently to India, spent four weeks in Mumbai doing preliminary research in one of the biggest slums in Asia, and now we’re in the process of writing an academic paper and getting published. I also now work as a research facilitator for the student-run conference InDePth: Asian Cities, hosted by the Munk School’s Asian Institute.

This is my second time doing an undergraduate degree, so I am learning from the mistakes I made during my first one, when I never got involved in an extracurricular activity unless it promised to add value to my resume. ITAC was different: I got involved because it was something I was passionate about. Winning the competition did provide us with an invaluable life experience, and also added value to our resumes, but this was never the goal. I believe it was our team’s passion that led us to success.

“People volunteer for the sake of volunteering and at the expense of their passion. There is always something at U of T for one’s passion. It is just a question of finding who is offering it, not whether it is being offered,” said Siddhartha.

University life offers an incredible amount of opportunities. Every day, different departments at U of T offer discussions on various topics, so many of which are free. Perhaps there is a problem with advertising, leaving many students unaware of these opportunities, but it is important to take matters in your own hands and get involved anyway.

“I think other students are not aware of how easy it is to get involved. They think, as I did, that every club on campus is very serious and time consuming. That there are set structures in place, and things can only get done by a certain type of people… not true!” said Alexandra.

He admitted that taking on the ITAC was initially intimidating, but the key is to stop looking at things from afar and get involved. When you’re immersed in the process and making your way through one step at a time, it no longer seems as immense or terrifying, and most importantly, you’ll be able to enjoy it. ITAC is now open for submissions for 2017-18 — if you’re passionate about exploring a topic it covers, who knows where the experience might take you.