Technology

A startup allegedly “hacked the world.” Then came the censorship—and now the backlash.

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Hacker-for-hire firms like NSO GroupThe following are some examples of how to get started: Hacking TeamThey are notorious for allowing their customers to spy upon vulnerable members of the civil society. Appin Technology in India and its subsidiaries were accused of playing a similar cyber mercenary role a decade ago, but attracted far less media attention. Over the past two years, a collection of people with direct and indirect links to that company have been working to keep it that way, using a campaign of legal threats to silence publishers and anyone else reporting on Appin Technology’s alleged hacking past. A loose coalition of anti censorship voices are now working to make this strategy backfire.

Since months, lawyers and executives whose ties are to Appin Technology or to a more recent organization, the Association of Appin Training Centers (which shares part of the name of Appin Technology), have used lawsuits to carry out a global censorship campaign. These efforts have demanded that more than a dozen publications amend or fully remove references to the original Appin Technology’s alleged illegal hacking or, in some cases, mentions of that company’s co-founder, Rajat Khare. A lawsuit brought by the Association of Appin Training Centers against Reuters resulted in a shocking order from a Delhi Court: It ordered that Reuters remove its article based upon a blockbuster investigative report into Appin Technology. Detailing its alleged targeting, spying and surveillanceCustomers worldwide can rely on Reuters to take on opposition leaders and corporate competitors, lawyers and wealthy individuals. Reuters “temporarily” removed its article in compliance with that injunction and is fighting the order in Indian court.

Appin Training Centers is attempting to enforce the same order on a number of news outlets. However, resistance is growing. Earlier this week, the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sent a response—published Here’s how to get in touch with us—pushing back against Appin Training Centers’ legal threats on behalf of media organizations caught in this crossfire, including the tech blog Techdirt and the investigative news nonprofit MuckRock.

No media outlet has claimed that Appin Training Centers—a group that describes itself as an educational firm run in part by former franchisees of the original Appin Technology, which reportedly ceased its alleged hacking operations more than a decade ago—has been involved in any illegal hacking. Appin Training Centers sent emails, citing Reuters’ court order, to Techdirt in December demanding that both sites remove any content related to allegations made by Appin Technology about its involvement in widespread cyberspying.

Appin Training Centers, Techdirt argued, fell within that injunction. Write about Reuters storyIt was also targeted by the takedown orders. Plaintiffs claim that MuckRock was also targeted. Reuters cited some documents that we have hostedIn its story, MuckRock uploaded the document to DocumentCloud. In the response sent on their behalf, the EFF states that the two media organizations are refusing to comply, arguing that the Indian court’s injunction “is in no way the global takedown order your correspondence represents it to be.” It also cites an American law called the SPEECH Act that deems any foreign court’s libel ruling that violates the First Amendment unenforceable in the US.

“It’s not a good state for a free press when one company can, around the world, disappear news articles,” Michael Morisy, the CEO and co-founder of MuckRock, tells WIRED. “That’s something that fundamentally we need to push back against.”

Techdirt founder Mike Masnick says that, beyond defeating the censorship of the Appin Technology story, he hopes their public response to that censorship effort will ultimately bring even more attention to the group’s past. Masnick coined this term 19 years ago. “the Streisand effect” to describe a situation in which someone’s attempt to hide information results in its broader exposure—exactly the situation he hopes to help create in this case. “The suppression of accurate reporting is problematic,” says Masnick. “When it happens, it deserves to be called out, and there should be more attention paid to those trying to silence it.”

The anti-secrecy organization Distributed Deny of Secrets has also joined efforts to spark the Streisand Effect. “uncensoring” Reuters’ story on the original Appin TechnologyAs part of a newly launched initiative, the Greenhouse Project. DDoSecrets cofounder Emma Best says the name comes from its intention to foster a “warming effect”—the opposite of the “chilling effect” used to describe the self-censorship created by legal threats. “It sends a signal to would-be censors, telling them that their success may be fleeting and limited,” Best says. “And it assures other journalists that their work can survive.”

Neither Appin Training Centers, Rajat Khare nor Reuters responded to WIRED’s request for comment.

The fight to expose the original Appin Technology’s alleged hacking history began to reach a head in November of 2022, when the Association for Appin Training Centers sued Reuters based only on its reporters’ unsolicited messages to Appin Training Centers’ employees and students. The company’s legal complaint, filed in India’s judicial system, accused Reuters not only of defamation, but “mental harassment, stalking, sexual misconduct and trauma.”

Nearly a full year later, Reuters nonetheless published its article, “How an Indian startup hacked the world.” The judge in the case initially sided with Appin Training Centers, writing that the article could have a “devastating effect on the general students population of India.” He quickly ordered an injunction stating that Appin Training Centers can demand Reuters take down their claims about Appin Technology.

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