Thousands of miles away from her homeland in Syria, she organized protests and ran social media pages in Canada in support of opposition forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Then anonymous complaints started rolling in and prompted Facebook to shut down her group page. Trolls left “nasty and dirty” comments on social media and created fake profiles with her photos, she said, while a Gmail administrator alerted her that “a state sponsor” was trying to hack her account.
“The Assad regime was functioning through this network of thugs that they call Shabeeha. Inside of Syria, those thugs would be physically beating up people and terrorizing them,” said the 42-year-old Toronto woman.
“Then they were also very much online, so they terrorized people online as well.”
As diaspora communities are increasingly relying on social media and other online platforms to pursue advocacy work, authoritarian states are trying to exert their will over overseas dissidents through what’s dubbed “digital transnational repression,” said a new study released Tuesday.
“States that engage in transnational repression use a variety of methods to silence, persecute, control, coerce, or otherwise intimidate their nationals abroad into refraining from transnational political or social activities that may undermine or threaten the state and power within its border,” said the report by the Citizen Lab at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
“Thus, nationals of these states who reside abroad are still limited in how they can exercise ‘their rights, liberties, and voice’ and remain subject to state authoritarianism even after leaving their country of origin.”
Being a country of immigrants — particularly refugees seeking protection from persecution — Canada is vulnerable to this kind of digital attacks, amid the advancement of surveillance technology and rising authoritarianism around the globe, said the report’s authors.
“There is this misassumption that once people arrive in Canada from authoritarian countries, they are safe. We need to redefine what safety is,” said Noura Al-Jizawi, one of the report’s co-authors.
“This is not only affecting the day-to-day life of these people, but it’s also affecting the civic rights, their freedom of speech or their freedom of assembly of an entire community that’s beyond the individuals who are being targeted.”
A team of researchers interviewed 18 individuals, all of whom resided in Canada and had moved or fled to Canada from 11 different places, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Tibet, Hong Kong, China, Rwanda, Iran, Afghanistan, East Turkestan, and Balochistan.
The participants shared their experiences of being intimidated for the advocacy work they conducted in Canada, as well as the impacts of such threats — allegedly from these foreign states and their supporters — on their well-being and the diaspora communities they come from.
“Their main concern besides their privacy and the privacy of their family is the friends and colleagues back home. If the government targets their devices digitally, they would reveal the underground and hidden network of activists,” said Al-Jizawi.
“Many of them mention that they try to avoid the communities from their country of origin because they can’t feel safe connecting with these people.”
Many of the participants in the study said they have reached out for assistance to authorities such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service but were disappointed.
“The responses were generally like, we can’t help you or this isn’t a crime and there’s nothing actionable here. In one case, they suggested to the person to hire a private detective,” noted Siena Anstis, another co-author of the study.
“Law enforcement is probably not that well equipped or trained to understand the broader context within which this is happening. The way that they handle these cases is quite dismissive.”
The anonymous Syrian-Canadian political activist who participated in the study said victims of transnational repression will stop reporting to Canadian officials if nothing comes out of their complaints.
“Every day we’re becoming more and more digital, which makes us more vulnerable to digital attacks and digital privacy issues. I hope our government will start thinking about how to protect us from this emerging threat that we never had to worry about before,” said the woman, who came here from Aleppo as a 7-year-old and has stopped her political activities to free Syria.
“If someone like me who is extremely outspoken and very difficult to stifle felt a little bit overwhelmed by all of it, you can imagine other people who recently came from Syria and still have a lot of ties there. I know a lot of people that will not open their mouth publicly because they’re scared what will happen.”
The report urges Ottawa to create a dedicated government agency to support victims and conduct research to better understand the scale and impact of these activities on the exercise of Canadian human rights. It also recommends establishing federal policies for the sale of surveillance technologies to authoritarian states and for guiding how social media platforms can better protect victims from digital attacks.
“It might seem at this stage it’s only happening to some communities in Canada and it doesn’t matter,” said Anstis. “But collectively it’s our human rights that are being eroded. It’s our capacity to engage in, affirm and protect against human rights and democracy. That space for dialogue is really reducing.”