Foreign Policy Magazine



AS THE SUN ROSE OVER THE BANKS OF THE SEINE AND THE MEDIEVAL, HALF-TIMBERED HOUSES OF ROUEN, FRANCE, ON JULY 13, 2012, Hisham Almiraat opened his inbox to find “Denunciation” in the subject line of an email. “Please do not mention my name or anything,” wrote the sender, Imane. “I do not want any trouble.”

The editor and co-founder of Mamfakinch, a pro-democracy website created in Morocco during the Arab Spring, Almiraat was one of his country’s most outspoken dissidents and someone accustomed to cryptic emails: Moroccan activists faced jail time for their views and risked their jobs, or even their lives, for speaking out against their government. From Normandy’s capital city, where Almiraat was in medical school, the bespectacled 36-year-old spent his time—in between classes and hospital shifts—mentoring, coaching, and editing more than 40 citizen journalists. The group covered the roiling unrest back in Almiraat’s homeland, where he would soon return after completing his studies. (Almiraat contributed to FOREIGN POLICY in 2011.)

Almiraat and his colleagues also trained Mamfakinch’s writers to use encryption software, most notably the Onion Router, so that their online activities remained anonymous and shielded. Tor, as it’s widely known, masks a user’s identity and physical location. “People were relying on us to protect their…reputations, their careers, and probably also their freedoms,” Almiraat says. “All of that could be put in jeopardy if that were made public.” It was precisely this forethought that had earned Mamfakinch the Breaking Borders Award, sponsored by Google and the citizen-media group Global Voices, for its efforts “to defend and promote freedom of speech rights on the Internet.”

But on that July morning, just 11 days after receiving the award, Almiraat read the message from Imane and knew “something wasn’t right.” A website link directed him to a document labeled “Scandal,” which, once downloaded, was blank. His associates received the same note.

Suspicious, Almiraat promptly forwarded the email to an activist he knew, who then sent it to Morgan Marquis-Boire, a dreadlocked, tattooed 32-year-old digital activist who’d grown up hacking in New Zealand under the nickname “Mayhem.” A top security researcher at Google, Marquis-Boire had made waves recently as a volunteer detective for Citizen Lab, a technology research and human rights group at the University of Toronto; he and several colleagues had found evidence that suggested Bahrain was using surveillance software—a product intended for government spying on suspected criminals—against supporters of political reform.

After a month-long analysis of the Scandal file, Marquis-Boire contacted Almiraat with disturbing news: Anyone who had opened the document had been infected with highly sophisticated spyware, which had been sent from an Internet protocol address in Morocco’s capital of Rabat. Further research comfirmed that the Supreme Council of National Defense, which ran Morocco’s security agencies, was behind the attack. Almiraat and his colleagues had essentially handed government spies the keys to their devices, rendering Tor, or any other encryption software, useless. Morocco’s spooks could read the Mamfakinch team’s emails, steal their passwords, log their keystrokes, turn on their webcams and microphones—and spies likely had been doing exactly those things and more since the intrusion in July.

That wasn’t all. Marquis-Boire and

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