MESA Board Statement on hacking and cyber surveillance as digital violence

The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association of North America is deeply concerned about the growing incidence of hacking of scholars of the Middle East and North Africa by sources that appear to be associated with governments of the region. These operations, which include surveillance and intelligence gathering, theft of identifying information and of research, have taken two forms. In one form, several scholars of Iran in the United Kingdom and North America have been targeted by Iranian hackers posing as a known scholar who invites the targeted scholar to participate in an online conference or a collaborative research project. The ensuing correspondence allows the hacker to compromise the targeted scholar with a malicious attachment or a link to a website designed to steal passwords and other personal information. Armed thus, the hacker can infiltrate the targeted scholar’s inbox, download their files and conduct phishing attacks on targeted scholars as well as their contacts. In the other form, several scholars have been hacked through their cell phones by Middle Eastern governments – most notably, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates – allegedly using the Israeli company NSO Group’s Pegasus software. Targeting the phone number itself and circumventing contact between the hackers and their “victim,” the “zero-click” malware infects both iPhones and Android devices, and allows operators to surreptitiously capture locations, messages, photos, and video recordings via covertly activated microphones and cameras.

Digital attacks facilitate other forms of violence in the physical world. In the case of scholars residing abroad, hacking not only scapegoats their network of collaboration, but also risks extending the reach of state power to physically harm their families, friends, and colleagues in their home country. Because of this, we consider cyber hacking, spying, and surveillance as digital violence – increasingly systematized to target scholars, alongside other professionals with a public reach, such as journalists.

The potential harm from cyber spying to the targeted scholar and those with whom they communicate is serious and far-reaching. We encourage all scholars of the MENA to guard against the threat of hacking to the extent possible. They should exercise caution when opening and responding to emails, store data and communications on multiple devices, and use encrypted communication whenever available.

We also call for the immediate cessation of such deeply invasive, state-directed cyber surveillance attacks against members of the academic community. They pose a grave threat to scholarly inquiry, engagement and exchange, and the right to privacy, as well as to personal security. Digital violence is inimical to academic freedom and basic rights.

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