ResearchTargeted Threats

Social Engineering Attacks on Government Opponents

Citizen Lab Senior Research Fellow Bill Marczak has co-authored a paper titled “Social Engineering Attacks on Government Opponents: Target Perspectives,” along with Vern Paxson of UC Berkeley. The paper explores the targeting of civil society organizations and activists with surveillance. These efforts often involve an element of social engineering – an attempt to convince a target to open a malicious file or link, which is included in a message. This is often done by posing as a friend, familiar organization, or a new contact with relevant information. The paper explores this process, and highlights the vulnerabilities of likely targets.


New methods of dissident surveillance employed by repressive nation-states increasingly involve socially engineering targets into unwitting cooperation (e.g., by convincing them to open a malicious attachment or link). While a fair amount is understood about the nature of these threat actors and the types of tools they use, there is comparatively little understood about targets’ perceptions of the risks associated with their online activity, and their security posture. We conducted in-depth interviews of 30 potential targets of Middle Eastern and Horn of Africa-based governments, also examining settings and software on their computers and phones. Our engagement illuminates the ways that likely targets are vulnerable to the types of social engineering employed by nation- states.

Read the full paper.