This summer, I am interning at the Citizen Lab, which is based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, an interdisciplinary research centre exploring the many, many ways technology infringes international human rights. My internship, though officially focusing on “information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security”,[1] has taken me everywhere—from EU Parliamentary hearings to corporate structures, all the way to the nitty gritty small-print of social media content moderation. A few unexpected topics have caught my attention, which highlight the ever-growing intersection between technology and various aspects of human rights work. In fact, while technology has seeped into virtually every facet of our lives, its importance in the work of human rights defenders cannot be understated.

First, I have been surprised to learn of how technology has been used to shape and influence diaspora communities from abroad, shaping what it means to “leave” in an era where our lives are often more online than offline. Immigration, whether forced or desired, has always involved a tricky balance between integration and holding on to one’s home country and culture More recently, Whatsapp groups, Facebook pages, and Telegram channels have been essential avenues for creating dialogues between here and there, forging trans-border channels of communication. But what to do when these digital spaces are no longer safe—and further, when that danger bleeds into the offline world?

One of the Citizen Lab’s main research focuses over the past few years tackles this question head-on. Digital Transnational Repression (or DTR for short) is the use of various digital means by governments to silence, stifle, or intimidate their citizens abroad. Included in DTR strategies are coordinated social media harassment campaigns, denial of service attacks, hacking, and the use of hyper-invasive and sophisticated commercial spyware, such as Pegasus or Predator. These various DTR techniques isolate human right defenders abroad from both the diaspora in their new country, as they do not know who they can or cannot trust, and from their activism back home, which they sometimes must cease engaging in for fear of repercussions against them and their loved ones. The oppressive technologies of DTR have created a digital and social purgatory for human rights defenders and their close ones when they leave a country in danger. As a whole, DTR places itself as one of modern states’ many tools to turn borders into something that’s less physical than it is legal and psychological.[2]

Second, I began my internship by helping clean up and fact-check a report the Citizen Lab dealing with the use of spyware internationally and in Canada. This brought to my attention the unsupervised and unregulated use of spyware in Canada (did you know that the RCMP has been casually monitoring the devices of Canadians through on-device investigative tools since the early 2000s?[3] Crazy.) and the lack of support for victims of digital transnational repression who have had their devices infected while residing in Canada. By deep diving into hundreds of footnotes and familiarizing myself with the Citizen Lab’s past work, I was marked by the omnipresence of technology in the defence of human rights, which has become near-impossible without digital connectivity.

As I began working on other projects for the lab, I have found this theme repeating itself over and over again. Whether through the availability of hyper-invasive surveillance technology to autocratic governments, potentially enabling them to illegally access activist devices and stop them, of the lack of action by social media platforms regarding technology-facilitated gender-based violence pushing women human rights defenders to log off permanently, this bizarre and unexpected intersection between corporate obligations, government regulations, and international law leaves human rights in an uneasy limbo. Technology companies, from social media platforms to surveillance software manufacturers, have very little accountability and oversight when it comes to the sale and use of their tech in accordance with human rights principles. Accordingly, compliance and remedies must often be sought through more unconventional means, such as export controls[4] and torts litigation,[5] rather than a rights-based approach.

In the next weeks of my internship, I look forward to continuing learning from the Citizen Lab’s great team of interdisciplinary researchers, and pushing the boundaries of my understanding of the legal mechanisms through which human rights can be pursued and enforced. The intersection of tech and human rights law is largely untested and in constant flux—accordingly, while I don’t expect having concrete solutions to these issues by the end of my internship, I’m excited to keep trying to decipher this entanglement of laws, technologies, and principles.


[2] For more on the “conception of the state as a collection of people to be governed, more than as a territorial entity,” see Malies Glasius, “Extraterritorial Authoritarian Practices: A Framework” (2017) 15:2 Globalizations 179.

[3] Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (2022), “Device Investigative Tools Used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Related Issues,” The House of Commons <>.

[4] See Sarah McKune & Ron Deibert, “Who’s Watching Little Brother? A Checklist for Accountability in the Industry Behind Government Hacking” Citizen Lab, 2 March 2017 at pp. 6–9.

[5] See ibid at pp. 14–16.