EFF’s Threat Lab Team has only just launched and already has reached some fantastic milestones. This team was created to look deeply into how surveillance technologies are used to target vulnerable communities, activists, and individuals. Here are some of the highlights:

Fighting Stalkerware

In the world of misuse of technologies and profiteering from this misuse, there’s a particularly egregious category of tools known as spouseware or stalkerware. These tools can gather someone’s location, calls, messages, photos, turn your camera, and control many other aspects of their phone remotely without them knowing. People typically use these tools to stalk their spouses or others, and companies that profit by selling these tools even market them as such. The team has worked hard to make sure this is more difficult by encouraging security companies to protect the victims by flagging these apps as malicious in antivirus software.

In November, EFF along with other organizations launched the  coalition to combat stalkerware with a site providing help for victims and bringing leaders in antivirus technology together to establish best practices for ethical software development. All these efforts have also seen the FTC taking action against stalkerware developer Retina-X.

Understanding Telecom Security

In July the Threat Lab team published a report explaining how Cell-Site Simulators (CSS), also known as IMSI catchers, work. These devices try to impersonate legitimate cellphone towers to trick mobile phones into connecting to them, in order to track a user’s movements, and in some cases intercept their communications. EFF has done extensive work on this and other forms of Street Level Surveillance, and this report helps researchers and the public understand what we currently know about these technologies.

Fighting Cyber-Mercenaries

In February, notorious cyber-mercenaries Dark Matter (since renamed Digital Trust) applied for inclusion in the Mozilla root certificate authority trust database. If accepted, this would have given Dark Matter the authority to issue trusted TLS certificates for any domain they wanted to such as google.com or eff.org. Deeply concerned by this development, the Threat Lab team wrote a blog post encouraging Mozilla to reject Dark Matter’s application.  This post sparked much discussion on the Mozilla trusted CA mailing list, and Mozilla eventually decided to not only reject Dark Matter’s current application but to also revoke an intermediate certificate belonging to Dark Matter as well. Thanks to the hard work of many in the internet security community, Dark Matter no longer has the ability to easily circumvent the TLS encryption that every web user relies on.

Fighting Street-Level Surveillance

The fight to protect our liberties on the streets brought a few victories this year. The team worked with California State Sen. Scott Wiener, to secure a state audit  of the use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) by law enforcement agencies. We revealed the massive growth of San Diego’s face recognition program, and successfully demanded it be shut down under a new state law. The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training also opened an investigation into the ALPR training program in response to our research. And, after years of EFF reports exposing abuse of California’s law enforcement databases, the California Department of Justice took steps to classify immigration enforcement as official misuse.

The team also worked with the University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism, where students collected data on the use of surveillance tech by local law enforcement agencies along the U.S.-Mexico border. Thanks to this collaboration, we can explore data from counties along the southern border.

In February we also published our findings on the most surveilled neighborhoods in San Francisco, which will help the public, researchers, and the media better understand where these technologies are deployed in one major U.S. city and who they affect the most.

What’s Next in 2020?

This was the inaugural year for the team, but the coming year will bring new threats for us to monitor, investigate, and fight. With the rise of the use of technological tools to surveil people and suppress speech, tracking these threats and providing resources to defend targeted populations remains a priority for EFF.

This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2019.


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