A multi-year study of cyberattacks against 10 activist and human rights groups shows they’re hit with the same types of intrusions as large organizations but have far fewer resources to defend themselves.
That disadvantage could mean a gradual erosion of the “core institutions” that mark a “vibrant democratic society,” wrote analysts with The Citizen Lab, a Canadian think tank that is part of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
The groups “typically do not have the funding to hire technical security experts, or the opportunity to engage with government on digital defence or overall policy in a manner that protects their security and confidentiality needs,” they wrote in a summary of their findings released on Tuesday.
The study involved eight groups that focus on China and Tibet and two large, global human rights organizations. They groups weren’t named in the report.
Over a four-year period, Citizen Lab looked at more than 800 suspicious emails, and 2,800 malicious payloads and malware families used to target the organizations, along with an analysis of network traffic.
The patterns that emerged showed that several of the 10 groups were likely hit by some of the same China-based attackers that have hit government and industry, confirming that activist groups are also attractive targets.
For example, two of the human rights groups, including one focused on Tibet, were struck by APT1, also known as the Comment Crew, highlighted in a report by the computer security company Mandiant in February 2013.
The U.S. and China have sparred over cyberattacks, with each accusing the other of advanced attacks on industry and government. U.S. companies have been increasingly vocal, lead in part by Google which asserted in early 2010 that China-based hackers stole its intellectual property and targeted the accounts of activists using Gmail.
In May, the U.S. Justice Department charged five members of the People’s Liberation Army with stealing trade secrets from U.S. companies, marking the first-ever U.S. criminal charges related to suspected state-sponsored hacking.
But The Citizen Lab contends that such attacks against rights-focused groups are underreported, which is why it decided to undertake a research project showing the magnitude of the problem.
“For example, while the US government has taken a strong political stance on Chinese cyber espionage against US companies—even filing a criminal indictment against members of the Chinese military for alleged hacking—we have not seen the U.S. Attorney General demand an end to the persistent attacks of US-based NGOs that work on China-related human rights issues,” they wrote.