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DDoS and surveillance technology increasingly used to silence journalists

Information is power. Well aware of that, adversaries go to great lengths to hush journalists.

Threat actors have increasingly used digital means to compromise journalistic integrity and jeopardize their safety. Their sources often find themselves in the crossfire, too.

“Both state and non-state actors use these tactics to gain access to confidential information and intimidate journalists,” a recent UNESCO report titled “Threats that Silence: Trends in the Safety of Journalists” reads.

Access Now, a non-profit with a mission to defend and extend the digital civil rights of people worldwide, recorded an increase in ‘requests for urgent support from journalists and activists working in conflict settings and countries experiencing shrinking civic space overall.’

States employ surveillance technology to track journalists, often under national security or public health justification. For example, The Pegasus Project revealed that the spyware, made and licensed by the Israeli company NSO Group, had been used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials, and human rights activists.

At least ten governments were involved in abusing the spyware, with three countries targeting the most users. Mexico had 15,000 requests while Algeria and the UAE had 10,000 requests, respectively.

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new challenge – many journalists had to rely on their personal devices while working from home. According to a research by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, a significant portion of surveyed journalists reported blatant threats of government surveillance, targeted cyberattacks, such as phishing, malware, forced data handover, and distributed denial of service (DDoS).

For example, the blog KrebsOnSecurity.com, belonging to a prominent cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs, was hit with an extremely large and unusual DDoS attack designed to knock the site offline.

“While spyware, surveillance, and other digital attacks are increasingly recognized as serious threats to journalism, many journalists do not have adequate access to or knowledge of (digital) tools that can help protect them. Often, the onus is put on the individual to ensure their own digital safety, as other actors, including internet companies and media organizations, very often do not offer adequate support,” UNESCO said.

Many journalists also report online abuse, threats, and harassment.

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