Their Eyes On Us

News & Analysis
Their Eyes On Us

This guest blog is written by Hisham Almiraat, co-founder of and Director of the 'Association des droits numériques' (ADN), an organisation working on human rights and technology in Morocco.


Mamfakinch was launched in February 2011, in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Its goal was to offer an open forum for all dissenting voices. The website received over a million unique visitors in the first few weeks after it was launched. It quickly became one of the main platforms of the pro-democracy movement in Morocco also known as the 'February 20 Movement', in reference to the date of the first mass demonstration organised by the movement in 2011.

Friday 13 July 2012 starts normal enough. Like every morning I open my email inbox. Among the emails I receive, one catches my attention. It comes from a certain Imane (""). The subject line is short: "Denunciation". I open it. "Please do not mention my name or anything I do not want any trouble ..." [sic]. I’m intrigued. The email includes a link to a webpage that contains a file to download called "scandal(2).doc". I move to click on it.

This isn’t the first time I have received such messages. I am the co-editor of the Moroccan opposition website so I do not think much of this - readers do send all kinds of tip-offs for stories. In any case I am late for work, so I decide to check the document out later in the evening. So far, so normal.

About fifteen of my co-editors receive the same message. Some click on the link and download the file. They try to open it but all they get is a blank page. What they don’t realize is that they have inadvertently installed a dangerous kind of software on their machines.

Something phishy going on

It's not immediately apparent what has just been installed on my colleagues' devices. Our Technologist at Mamfakinch thinks the email looked suspicious. So he decides to get in touch with Citizen Lab, a research group based in Toronto, Canada. After a few days, Citizen Lab send us a reply: it's unequivocal, this is a spying program - and not just any kind of spying programme.

Citizen Lab explained that there was spyware hidden in the Word file. Once the file is downloaded the spyware automatically installs itself and opens a backdoor to the target computer. The device is now able to be controlled via this spyware. Anyone controlling the spyware can access all files on the computer, including documents. They can harvest all passwords for applications like Skype and email, even read draft emails. It can record all keystrokes on the computer. They can even operate the camera and microphone of the target computer.

This particular spyware goes by many names: RCS, Remote Control System, or Galileo. Within the code of the spying software, Citizen Lab identified the fingerprint of "Hacking Team". This is the name of an Italian company based in Milan. It specializes in developing spying technology that it sells at a high price to intelligence services around the world.

Hacked apart

My first reaction reading Citizen Lab's findings is one of anxiety. The personal computer that has served me faithfully all of these years may now have been turned against me. Whoever attacked us that day may now have access to our conversations, our login credentials to any services we use. They probably have access to the names and addresses of our correspondents, even our phone numbers and postal addresses. Most worryingly, they could have access to the identities of any confidential sources.

But it is a feeling of anger that quickly takes over. I realise how the protection of the personal data of our contributors and the confidentiality of our conversations is essential to the survival of our project. All of that might have just been torpedoed by this attack.

Their eyes are on us now. And it is too much to take for most of us.

Nothing to hide, but people to protect

When Mamfakinch started on February 17 2011, we were thirty volunteers working behind the project. A few months after the attack we were down to three. It was only a matter of time before we decide to put an end to the 'adventure'.

Our members use pseudonyms to avoid becoming easy targets. These are honest people who may not have something to hide, but a lot to protect: their careers, their loved ones, their reputations, their freedom. The attack had undermined our ability to provide them with a safe space in which they can think and write, argue and debate without fear, and without the inquisitive eye of power. It is therefore no surprise that in the months following the attack by the Hacking Team spyware, our most essential friends chose to leave rather than run the risk of losing it all.

The case of Mamfakinch is far from unique. As a report published in March 2015 by Privacy International in partnership with my new organisation in Morocco Association des droits numériques shows, there are many similar stories of attacks against the privacy of independent journalists, opinion leaders and activists from the February 20 Movement. Now dissidents are followed into their bedrooms, their personal accounts are routinely hacked, their private lives and personal communications carried into the public square in order to discredit and intimidate them.

Let's take it back!

These violations are having a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves online without fear that their private lives may be scrutinized by the Government. In a country like Morocco, where the media is under tight state control, and where the internet is often the only remaining free public space, this evolution is particularly worrying.

It is the safety of our private communications that allowed many of us in recent years to mobilise globally and coordinate around fundamental ideas like human dignity, freedom and democracy. Without freedom from the judgmental eye of those in power it is very hard to affect any meaningful change.

The arsenal of technologies for surveillance of private communications possessed by governments are changing the internet into something ugly, especially for anyone with something important at stake - our families, our careers, our reputations, our freedom.

It shouldn’t be so. Let’s not let governments and corporations wreck this space. We, the people of the internet, can win the internet back.