Top human rights barrister highlights Chinese cyber-attacks on her and others

Gallagher: Attacks show importance of standing up to bullies

One of the country’s leading human rights barristers has complained about Twitter accounts and emails purporting to be from her and other human rights defenders that spring up when they criticise China.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, of Doughty Street, tweeted about how “impersonation is a growing problem for human rights defenders”, especially when working on China, and talked about how she had been targeted.

She described as “a very concerning example of a general trend” the creation of hundreds of false Twitter accounts impersonating Safeguard Defenders earlier this month.

Safeguard Defenders promotes the rule of law and helps human rights defenders build capacity in Asia. It inherited the mission of a group called China Action, which was forced to close by the Chinese authorities in 2016, but has a wider brief.

The cyber-attack came in the wake of a report from Safeguard Defenders on Chinese transnational policing that claimed China was conducting “long-arm policing operations on European soil”.

Soon after, it said as many as 1,000 new fake accounts using its name had appeared in just 12 hours and that it could not “possibly” report them all to Twitter manually.

The following day, it said Twitter had resolved the issue and thanked supporters who flagged fake accounts.

In response to the events, a Twitter thread from Ms Gallagher said: “Both impersonation & hijacking of accounts are tactics used to spread pro-CCP [Chinese Communist Party] messages & undermine those targeted. This has been done, for example, to journalists reporting on Hong Kong or China, European politicians, human rights lawyers, activists. Some (of many) examples.

“And I can’t give much detail, but another example: I can say that there has been a systemic attempt to impersonate me, with false emails being sent to MPs, activists, lawyers, journalists etc, purportedly from me. At least one more person in the world can spell my name…”

She said she had been “a victim of malicious impersonation myself recently, both ways” – being impersonated and also targeted with messages from fake accounts.

Ms Gallagher went on: “These are now well-established & oft-used tactics. Any of us working in risk professions must be alert & vigilant.”

The barrister said that, as well as taking down fake accounts, the likes of Twitter and Google, as well as law enforcement, should conduct investigations when attacks like this happened.

She observed that, while being verified with a blue tick, which Safeguard Defenders are, “hopefully gives a level of protection” against people falling for false accounts, it did not mean they were immune from attack, while “many human rights defenders” did not fit the criteria for a blue tick.

In a subsequent post, Ms Gallagher said that, since posting the thread, “I’ve had more abusive, offensive harassing messages & yet more impersonation emails going out, purporting to be me”.

She added: “It may be intended to scare me off. But it just serves as a timely reminder of the importance of standing up to bullies.”

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