Global systems for exploiting natural resources are designed to make profit, not to protect the environment or respect the rights of local communities. Corruption and the lack of transparency and accountability in the extraction and development sectors has meant that for decades, the exploitation of natural resources and the development of polluting industries has been possible all over the planet at an alarming rate, resulting in displacements, pollution and conflicts. Indigenous and local communities are at the front-line of struggles to protect the communities and the environment in which they live, while being in severely marginalised positions. Defenders are increasingly being criminalised, intimidated, harassed and, in some cases, even murdered for standing up to companies, corporations, extraction industries and governments who are exploiting natural resources, eroding land and customary rights and threatening local livelihoods. Companies as well as governments have used physical threats against defenders all over the planet. Examples of physical threats include killings and attempted killings, sexual assault and rape, torture, and arbitrary detention and illegal arrest.
The design of digital defence systems for (W)HRD, Land, Nature and Earth rights defender cases is hard. Beneficiaries are often highly vulnerable, with critical security and protection needs that complicate any kind of support. The power dynamics between marginalised people(s) and the organisations serving them can complicate matters further, not to mention cultural differences. And low levels of technology adoption and digital literacy mean that in many such contexts it can deepen dependencies on any support system.
Most attacks are preceded by some form of targeted surveillance (digital or not). Each context is different, and the attackers use different tactics, techniques, procedures, tools, exploits, pivoting methodologies, and goals. “Typical defences” may not fit, may even make no sense at all. Hence we propose an adaptation of “red teaming” campaigns, involving local people for building local detection and incident response teams, which will have enough connections to escalate incidences when necessary.
Digital security attacks on defenders were widespread and their impact had numerous knock-on effects relating to the security of the defenders and movements more broadly. Social media attacks, trolling and hacking or blocking of social media accounts occurred in all regions, but their frequency was especially noticeable in Brazil, Egypt, Guatemala, Honduras, Iraq, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Phone and email surveillance was conducted in numerous countries, and frequently targeted higher risk groups include LGBTI+ defenders, women's human rights defenders and environmental activists.