Hacking is far more than a security issue. It chills free speech

The British and US governments have just jointly sanctioned two Russian intelligence operatives for their attempts to derail the democratic process through a series of coordinated cyber attacks. The US State Department is also offering a reward of up to $10M for information on the Russian hackers responsible for the coordinated cyber espionage attack, which is international and spans several years. Targets even included the former MI6 director Richard Dearlove, and more recently scientists at several nuclear facilities in the United States. But what distinguishes this recent wave of Russian cyberattacks is that they are not just targeting governments or politicians.

Civil society became a significant target for Russia’s state backed hackers, including “universities, journalists, public sector, non-government organisations and other civil society organisations”. Paul Mason, a former BBC and Channel 4 journalist, has put out a statement confirming he was targeted by these hackers. At the time his private accounts were hacked, I had been helping Mason work on an article challenging Russian propaganda narratives that were spreading during the Bucha massacre in Ukraine. Overnight we were turned into the latest circulating ‘deep state’ conspiracy theory.

The Mason hack

As we worked, I received an urgent message from Mason saying his emails with me may have been compromised. He published a statement saying he had been “targeted by a Russian hack-and-leak operation”. I then received an email from a Grayzone writer who has also written for Russian state media (Sputnik/RT), saying, “Been going over various emails and DMs of yours. Very interesting…” The writer said he thought my employer and “the academics you’re trying to target are likely to be very unhappy indeed when they hear about all this. I think we’d better talk.”

The writer said the email was not a threat. But it was clear to me I was facing an impending reputational attack to harm my career and relationships. This email didn’t resemble the right to reply that journalists usually send posing questions prior to reporting, and it made no mention of an article or outlet.

Within hours the first article hit Grayzone, a website with a pro-Kremlin stance on world events. A series of stories followed linking me to activities of which I had no knowledge and suggested that Mason and I could be part of a nefarious plot to silence critics of NATO in Russia’s war on Ukraine.

I do not, of course, help any government produce lists of people to censor. My work regularly defends transparency and free expression – including that of those I disagree withIndeed my work often questions Western governments, but such questioning must be built on facts.

The author of the Grayzone articles apparently told Politico in 2022 that the emails at the centre of these claims were sent to the organisation anonymously via burner email accounts. The Grayzone has argued that “there is not even hard evidence that Russian hackers were the source of the leaks.”

But this week the UK and US governments issued sanctions against the individuals from hacking group Cold River (also known as Star Blizzard, SEABORGIUM, and the Callisto Group) which was reported to be behind this series of hacks. Cold River, they say, is operated by the Russian intelligence entity, the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), and “selectively leaked and amplified the release of information in line with Russian confrontation goals.”

Hacking freedom of expression

Hacking is normally discussed as a security issue. But this new form of cyber attack significantly threatens freedom of expression as I explain in my recent academic writing. Joe Burton, a professor at Lancaster University, has described this phenomenon as cyber intimidation, “a form of intentional bullying and intimidation that affects how individuals, groups and states act, including the things they do and the things they do not do. This includes the ability to express themselves free of fear of persecution or retribution.”

The UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the hackers had “failed”. But some impacts can be difficult to track rendering them invisible, particularly where they silence and suppress activism. And new research indicates cyberattacks cause “equally high levels of psychological distress as conventional terrorism and political violence,” driving political pressure that can escalate conflicts.

Today, aggressive cyber tools are increasingly available for authoritarian regimes wishing to target civil society actors. We ordinary people, not just governments are targeted with lawfare, spyware, social engineering and hacking. Russian hackers, for example, last year also reportedly doxed (malicious publication of personal information) those defending Ukraine. As Citizen Lab has shown, emails hacked from journalists and civil society are also often doctored before they are published, a phenomenon they called “tainted leaks”. Where it is hard for the Kremlin to defeat truth with lies, we see these chilling efforts deployed against researchers and journalists, eroding trust in those delivering any message counter to its interests. The ease at which this can now happen should terrify democracy defenders everywhere.

The hacking of journalists and their sources in particular undermines the ability to privately discuss, research and develop journalism. It also threatens free expression by closing down one side: Rather than contributing to debate, a pre-emptive hack against a journalist halts it.

In the case of Mason’s journalism and my efforts to contribute to it last year, the hack occurred before critical work on those defending Putin’s bloody invasion could occur. For the Kremlin’s hackers and their support alternative credible counter-perspectives cannot be allowed to rise on the left.

A crisis of trust

Conspiracy theories like these proliferate due to a deep crisis of trust in our media and political system. This has its roots in real injustices. But it is also exacerbated by the crisis facing traditional journalism that feeds a rising popularity of news ‘alternatives’. Social media’s engagement-based algorithms then tailor our feed of content to maximize popularity, which of course increases the politically divisive or fear-driven framing of content we see. This business model monetises the most misleading and toxic content, then social media companies are not consistent in responding to the content violating their policies against hacked material. Where cyberattacks are used to intimidate and silence civil society, victims may have limited power to respond. State-backed cyberattacks steal content that can be selectively used to create distrust in reliable journalists, researchers and NGO’s, or to drive anti-government conspiracy theories. Hacks also provoke government reactions that extend secrecy, roll back citizen rights or restrict vital journalism, which can be exploited by Russia to further fuel distrust of government and appetite for hacks – I call this a spiral of “secrecy hacking”. Ironically, increasing efforts by the British government to control information disclosure on national security have fed an information vacuum that provides fertile ground for misleading hacks to spread.

While I welcome sanctions against the Russian hackers, and urge all activists, journalists and scholars to be aware of their technical methods – in the long-term the solutions to Russian hacks lie in tackling our deepening crisis of trust.

Israel and Palestine – the key free speech issues

The events of the last week have been horrific. We won’t rehash them here — the videos, photos and details coming out of the Middle East are everywhere you look. For an organisation that campaigns for free speech, we have struggled to find words to respond to the mounting loss of life and the horrendous accounts that emerge every day. But at Index our job is not to report on all of this. Instead our job is to uphold free expression, and to alert the world to the instances where this has been curtailed. So that’s what we’ll do. Here are the free speech issues we are most concerned about:

Killed and missing journalists 
Amid the deaths of civilians, journalists are losing their lives. While there’s nothing to suggest that the journalists are being specifically targeted, their lack of protection is of huge concern, both for them and for the knock-on effect for media freedom more broadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that at least 10 journalists have been killed so far. The first was Yaniv Zohar, an Israeli photographer working for the Israeli Hebrew-language daily newspaper Israel Hayom, who was killed alongside his wife and two daughters during the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel on 7 October. Israel Hayom’s editor-in-chief has said that Yaniv was working that day. Nine Palestinian journalists have also been confirmed dead as of yesterday and one Israeli journalist is reported missing.

Protest bans
Across the world, buildings are being lit up with blue and white, while green, white, black and red flags are being held aloft in protest. While these vigils and protests are being enacted, so too are calls to shut them down. In the UK, home secretary Suella Braverman suggested waving Palestinian flags might be a criminal act (depending on the context) and told police chiefs to be on “alert and ready to respond to any potential offences”. In France, the interior minister yesterday announced a systematic ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Police have also warned against pro-Palestine rallies in Sydney, after some people chanted antisemitic slogans at a previous demonstration. The Sydney event organisers have distanced themselves from those people and said: “This behaviour has no place at these rallies.” Meanwhile, police in Sydney placed restrictions on Jewish people by warning them to stay at home while that first rally went ahead, and even arrested a man who was carrying an Israeli flag for “breach of the peace”.

There are certain areas that fall into “grey free speech” areas. Protest is usually not one of them. Only sometimes it is. The office was divided, for example, on whether there should be restrictions on protest outside abortion clinics. Today we are similarly divided. The Times argues here that some protests are making the leap from a peaceful right to expression to hate crimes. The Daily Beast argues the opposite and that these bans would erode our free speech rights.

Internet interruptions 
This week we’ve heard reports of social media accounts being suspended or blocked. NetBlocks, a former Index award-winner which maps media freedom, has also reported on declining internet connectivity in areas of both Israel and Palestine, after attacks and counter-attacks. In Gaza, a total blackout is anticipated if further internet infrastructure is damaged, making access to social media all but impossible before the apps are even opened. As we reported when Erdogan cut off access to social media following the Turkey earthquakes, access to the internet and these platforms is crucial during times of disaster and war. It can be a lifeline, connecting people to aid as well as to their loved ones.

Misinformation multiplied 
On Wednesday, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins called out a video seemingly from the BBC being circulated by Russian social media users, which claimed Ukraine was smuggling weapons to Hamas. The video was entirely fake. Others have highlighted video after video claiming to be footage of Israel bombing Gaza or Hamas airstrikes on Israel, which are in fact a combination of Assad airstrikes in Syria, fireworks in Algeria and even video game footage. Both faked and reappropriated content are running rampant on X (formerly Twitter), which is not necessarily anything new. But a Wired report suggests that the scale of the problem is new. Boosted posts from premium subscribers take precedence over once-verified news providers and hordes of fired misinformation researchers now spend their time updating their CVs rather than fighting fake news on the platform. And in an added twist fake news to smear both Muslims and Jews is also running rampant behind China’s Great Firewall on Sina Weibo.

Fair journalism
Getting news from on the ground is a huge challenge in this conflict, and it’s in that vacuum that the kind of misinformation we just outlined takes hold. So it’s all the more concerning that Israel’s public broadcaster Kan News reported that the Israeli cabinet is planning emergency legislation to ban Al Jazeera, which does have a presence on the ground in Gaza. This is not the first time Israel has announced a ban on the network. Back in 2017 Israel looked set to join a boycott by Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which all accused the network of sponsoring terrorism. Relationships between Al Jazeera and Israel have also been very strained since the May 2022 killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh. But if Al Jazeera is banned, one of the few media outlets reporting from within Gaza will go silent. 

We know that conflicts can deal a blow to free expression. At Index we are here to ensure that doesn’t happen, or at least if it does happen that it doesn’t go unnoticed. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.

The UK government needs to work out just what “free speech” means

The Prince of Wales delivers the Queen’s Speech during the State Opening of Parliament 2022. Alastair Grant/PA Wire/PA Images

Unintended consequences and ideological incoherence. These phrases have dominated all discussions I have had in recent days about the British Government’s current approach to freedom of speech and expression.

There are now at least six pieces of legislation, outlined in last week’s Queen’s speech, which will be debated by the UK Parliament, which have a direct impact of our collective ability, in the UK, to exercise our rights to free expression. As individual pieces of legislation some are of value, but others are seemingly a political tool to set the scene for a battle about culture wars at the next British General Election, rather than to fix a problem in our society. That would be bad enough, but when considered in the round, rather than as individual laws, we are seeing a hotchpotch approach to free speech which is both ideologically incoherent and inconsistent as well as having numerous unintended consequences.

The best case in point is the proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which sets out to protect academic endeavour on campus, aiming to ensure that some of the most controversial and/or obscure issues are protected areas of academic enquiry. The Bill aims to give academics stronger protections in law to both study and discuss these issues. I have written previously about my concern that this is attempting to fix a problem that doesn’t exist and that most of the proposed provisions are already accessible under other legal frameworks, but as a principle how could Index on Censorship not seek to protect academic freedom both at home and abroad? But that brings to me to one of the inherent contradictions in the Government’s overall approach.

The Bill would provide legal protections to enable an academic to give a lecture on replacement theory – the idea that white populations risk becoming minorities as a result of immigration and high birth rates among migrants – something which I consider to be a racist and pernicious doctrine.

Replacement theory, while abhorrent, is not considered to be illegal speech, it could however be viewed as harmful speech. If the lecture was, however, then placed on a social media platform, under the Government’s proposals in the Online Safety Bill, it could be considered to be “legal but harmful” content and subject to deletion. So, you could give a lecture using protected speech in an auditorium, but your students wouldn’t be able to access it online, to debate and challenge it, and other academics wouldn’t be able to challenge the assertions of the controversial academic in any meaningful way online. So how does that protect free speech?

The British Government is also proposing a new Bill of Rights to enshrine UK human rights in a post-Brexit world. The Justice Secretary, Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, has stated that: “We will still be clamping down on those who try and use either media or free speech to incite violence, to radicalise terrorists, or to threaten children. All of those safeguards will be in place. But we’ve got to be able to strengthen free speech, the liberty that guards all of our other freedoms, and stop it being whittled away surreptitiously, sometimes without us really being conscious of it. So it will have a different status in the pecking order of rights and I think that will go a long way to protecting this country’s freedom of speech and our history, which has always very strongly protected freedom of speech.”

Which of course to someone like me who cherishes our right to freedom of expression is manna from heaven – or is it?  Because at the same time as the Justice Secretary is seeking to make freedom of speech the foundational human right in the British system, the Home Secretary is reviewing the Official Secrets Act in the guise of a new National Security Bill. This time, an exemption for a public interest defence, a longstanding provision which protects journalists when they publish the accounts of whistle-blowers relating to national security, seems to have been forgotten. This completely undermines the premise of media freedom and journalism being able to hold power to account.

The British Government is also proposing new legislation to severely limit the right to protest in the UK under a new Public Order Bill and a new Data Reform Bill which will change our rights to privacy online. The Government is also consulting on new legislation to counter strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) in order to stop the misuse of our libel system to silence the media and campaigners.

In other words, the Government is speaking a great deal about freedom of speech in the UK at the moment, but seemingly without any of the relevant departments or Government agencies talking to each other. As the inherent contradictions in their use and definition of free speech become more obvious, we will see a national picture in the UK which is even more convoluted and probably open to legal challenge.  Index is calling for a more strategic and defined approach to free speech in the UK and will be working with partners across the political spectrum to try and get to a place that protects all of our speech.