US-funded nonprofit The Open Technology Fund is being pressured by Trump appointee Michael Pack to fund repressive surveillance tech that will put human rights activists around the world in danger.
The Open Technology Fund (OTF), “a U.S. government-funded nonprofit that provides encryption technologies to journalists and activists living under repressive regimes,” is under threat from Michael Pack, an appointee of President Donald Trump who now heads the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the group that oversees the OTF.
Pack is pressuring the OTF to change its funding allocation in a way that could endanger LGBTQ activists and others strategizing for civil rights in countries like China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, leaving them subject harassment, arrest, violence, and death.
According to Vice News, Pack has packed USAGM’s board with Trump loyalists who are working to funnel tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to closed-source technologies. Closed-source technologies are privately developed apps in which all or part of their coding is kept hidden. They could contain backdoor and security vulnerabilities allowing repressive regimes to track users and monitor their online communications.
Pack’s shift to closed-source technology is a fundamental change to the OTF’s long-running investment in “open-source technology,” tech whose publicly available source code can be studied and tested to ensure others can’t access user data.
Pack’s USAGM is currently pushing for OTF to invest in Freegate and Ultrasurf, two closed-source apps that purport to get around the Great Firewall of China, a censorious and domestically controlled internet that blocks activists from any sites critical of the Chinese government.
Open-source software experts that spoke to Vice said, “[Ultrasurf’s] code is out of date, dangerously vulnerable to compromise, and lacks the user base to allow it to effectively scale even if they secured government funding.”
Laura Cunningham and Libby Liu, who very recently served as OTF’s president and CEO respectively, told Vice News that in March 2020 (shortly after Trump installed Pack), Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation Human Rights and Justice (one of the groups pushing Ultrasurf) threatened them to fund the app or else risk being ousted by Pack and his board.
On June 13, 2020, Michael Horowitz, former director of the Project for International Religious Liberty (another group pushing Ultrasurf), then went on the radio show of white supremacist-enabler and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and called for Pack to fire Liu — four days later, he did. A day later, Pack fired Cunningham without providing any reason whatsoever.
Current and former OTF staff members told Vice they’re worried about the OTF’s direction under Pack. Longtime open-source technology advocate Cory Doctorow summed up the worry in a Twitter thread that linked to a petition urging Congress to intervene:
The Trump admin wants to nuke the OTF and give all its money to a bunch of grifty, closed-source privacy and firewall-circumvention tools. These tools are NOT auditable, and the companies that make them stand to make BANK from the move… If i was a Uyghur in Xinjiang or a dissident in Tehran, I would NOT trust my life to these tools. No goddamned way.
OTF’s ironclad rule of funding open, free code isn’t just a way to allay suspicions about the tools’ true purpose – it’s also a preventative against corruption, because the projects OTF funds CAN’T insert spy code without being caught right away… Based on this administration’s track record, I’m about 70-30 that this is just a bro deal that lets some cronies suck up millions in corporate welfare while hanging out tools used by vulnerable people around the world to dry.
Remember, Congress allocated this money for the OTF, not as pork for a bunch of connected insiders. This money built the tools that #BlackLivesMatter protesters use, to say nothing of the #HongKongProtests and many other movements around the world.
It will be a genuine, deep, widespread tragedy if this move isn’t stopped.
Written by Daniel Villareal, The New Civil Rights Movement. Photo via NCRM