Ronald Deibert likes to refer to the laboratory he directs as the CSI of cyberspace. Much like TV’s CSI, Citizen Lab consists of specialists from several different fields of expertise. Founded by Deibert in 2001, the interdisciplinary initiative based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs brings together political scientists, sociologists, computer scientists, engineers, graphic designers and security experts. The team’s objective is to promote global human rights by identifying cybersecurity threats, both state-sponsored and privately created.
Among its many high-profile projects, Citizen Lab has provided the ammunition for digital rights groups to bring lawsuits on behalf of aggrieved parties. In February the Electronic Frontier Foundation brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Ethiopian government on behalf of an Ethiopian dissident living in the U.S. The dissident, identified under the pseudonym Kidane, had read a report from Citizen Lab about how the Ethiopian government was using malware to target the computers of dissidents around the world to spy on them. Kidane gave Citizen Lab his computer and alleges it contained the malware in question.
“EFF has a pretty large tech staff, and we have a number of technologists,” says EFF global policy analyst Eva Galperin, who has worked with Citizen Lab on several projects, including a report on Syria’s malware use. “However, unlike Citizen Lab, we don’t have people who can reverse-engineer malware because it’s a very specialized skill.”
Keeping hold of that talent, with the skills to stay a step ahead of hackers, is a key concern for Deibert these days.
“Citizen Lab is not the type of organization that can compete on salary level with the private security industry or even the government,” Deibert says. “What we can provide is the excitement of working on the most cutting-edge issues while helping the cause of human rights.”
• Read an extended profile of Ronald Deibert
• Read more about our 2014 Legal Rebels