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Report unveils the 20 worst “digital predators” in 2020

On 12 March 2020, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a list of the 20 worst “digital predators” in 2020. The RSF list is made up of companies and governments that use digital technology to spy and harass journalists and which pose “a clear danger for freedom of opinion and expression, which is guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The list was released to coincide with the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, created through a joint initiative between RSF and Amnesty International in 2008. The day is intended to rally support for a single, unrestricted Internet that is accessible to all and to draw attention to the ways that governments around the world are deterring and censoring free speech online.

RSF has classified digital predators under four broad headings: harassment, state censorship, disinformation and spying or surveillance.

The list includes both state and non-state actors, authoritarian regimes, private sector companies, companies based in the US, UK, Germany and Israel, many specialising in software that can be used for targeted cyber-espionage.

Upon releasing the list, Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of RSF said:

“The authoritarian strongmen behind predatory activity against press freedom are extending their tentacles into the digital world with the help of armies of accomplices, subordinates and henchmen who are organised and determined digital predators”

Going on to say: “We have decided to publish this list of 20 digital predators in order not only to expose another aspect of press freedom violations but also to draw attention to the fact that these accomplices sometimes act from or within democratic countries.”

Some inclusions to the list will come of little surprise. The encroachments on press freedoms in Russia, Iran and China have been well documented, including the aggressive use of troll farms, online spying and disinformation. Though the report describes how such digital control methods are becoming more and more widespread.

The report also shines a light on lesser known – but equally important – non-state actors. This led Mr. Deloire to say: “Opposition to despotic regimes also means ensuring that the weapons for suppressing journalism are not delivered to them from abroad” in a reference to British, German and Swiss companies allegedly involved in supplying intrusive software to abusers.

Specific case studies documented within the report include that of Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist who wrote the Gujarat Files a book which follows Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, rise to power. Since the books publication, Ayyub has become a target of the “Yoddhas” – online trolls who either volunteer their services or are paid employees of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party.

The report also purports to the existence of a “hate office” in the administration of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro. The office reportedly publishes attacks against journalists on a large scale, including Glenn Greenwald, a former Guardian journalist who published revelations about Bolsonaro. The existence of this “hate office” was actually first revealed by Joice Hasselmann, a parliamentarian and former ally of Bolsonaro, the office reportedly consists of presidential advisers and is coordinated by the president’s son, Carlos

The digital predator report also looks into state-sponsored social media “reinformation”, highlighting a campaign run by Vietnam’s ministry of public security in which 10,000 ‘cyber-soldiers’ are at the ready to combat any online “abuses” and “reactionary forces”. In reality, this equates to being ready to drown out any criticism levelled at the government.

RSF give the example of a deadly raid on a village known as Dong Tam in January 2020, in which the actions of the police were widely criticised. Social media was flooded with forced confessions from those accused of being involved, apparently in an effort to distract criticism.

Rounding up the list is Zerodium, a US-based cybersecurity firm that, according to RSF, obtains information about vulnerabilities in widely-used software from hackers and security researchers. It will then collate and sell this information onto third parties.

The complete list of the 20 worst digital predators can be found here:

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