One evening in 2018, Olga closed her laptop and walked out of a hotel room in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, for a quick dinner. She had arrived in the city the previous night to participate in a workshop for local civil society groups. As the head of a small human rights watchdog, she was a regular at these events.
When Olga returned to the hotel, her laptop was not there. The hotel had no security cameras, and police officers who soon arrived said it was unlikely that she would get the device back. That only reinforced the woman’s suspicion that the laptop had been taken by the authorities. As a vocal member of a coalition demanding justice for victims of police abuse, she knew the authorities would do anything to get access to her data.
Having the laptop stolen could have had dire consequences for Olga, her organization and other people that she worked with. She had a lot of sensitive files on her hard drive, including testimonies from victims of police torture. If this data fell into the hands of the authorities, it would have been a disaster for many people.
Encryption and backups
Nonprofits and activists are particularly vulnerable to attacks targeting their online assets and digital devices. The Ottawa-based organization I work for helps civil society organizations in countries like Kazakhstan to tackle digital risks.
Shortly before Olga’s laptop was stolen, we had helped her organization to put in place basic digital safety measures. Those measures included encrypting her laptop and setting up automatic backups. So, Olga not only kept all her files but also knew that the thief would not be able to decrypt them. As a precaution against possible device loss, we had also enabled remote erase on the laptop. With the laptop gone, the woman activated this function and knew that as soon as her device connected to the Internet, its hard drive would be wiped.
This is what we do on a daily basis. This work is important for activists and civil society groups fighting injustices and making their communities and nations better places to live.
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