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March 2020 Monthly Report

In March, OTF began reviewing and responding to the 129 concept notes submitted during the March 1 round for the Internet Freedom and Core Infrastructure Funds, while also evaluating the 7 concept notes received for OTF’s inaugural Technology at Scale Fund solicitation. The Technology at Scale Fund is OTF’s newest fund which will support mature internet freedom technologies that directly serve USAGM entities. Also nearly through the review process are the 40 applications received for the next cohort of the Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP).

Issues/Concerns

The unexpected long-term COVID restrictions have not impacted the OTF operations however it has caused some complications with the timeline of the spin-out from RFA which we are managing around with the great support of Bay Fang and Patrick Taylor.

In light of the dramatic implementation of COVID-premised internet censorship going on around the world, OTF expanded its Rapid Response Fund to support internet interference, blocking, targeting or surveillance in at-risk communities. To assist with the proliferation of remote work and conference calls using Zoom, OTF has been providing users with tips for protecting your privacy on Zoom produced by EFF.

Notable accomplishments

  • It was recently announced that OTF-supported, open-source VPN Wireguard would be integrated into the Linux Kernel. This important development both serves as recognition of the huge security and performance gains that WireGuard offers compared to other VPNs, and means that the number of users who will benefit from WireGuard is poised to grow exponentially. You can read more about recent developments with WireGuard here.
  • Relatedly, a prominent VPN provider, Private Internet Access, announced the integration of OTF-supported WireGuard.
  • OTF is excited to announce the selection of 8 individuals for the newest class of the Digital Integrity Fellowship Program (DIFP). The group will focus on providing digital security assistance to organizations facing internet freedom threats including targeted malware, DDoS attacks on their websites, mobile security needs and others to be discovered and remedied. More information on this year’s class is available here.
  • In the network measurement space, the release of OONI Probe mobile 2.3.0 included several important new features including re-testing URLs which allows users to collect more robust evidence of potential blocking as well as the ability to test all of the URLs included in the Citizen Lab's global and country-specific test lists at once. A summary of some of OONI’s recent highlights can be found here. Also of interest are revelations around Iranian blocking of Wikipedia and recent updates on what OONI is doing in response to COVID-19.
  • The Fake Antennae Detaction Project (FADe) - which with OTF funding seeks to better understand and create detection methodologies for cell phone surveillance in Latin America - launched a website charting the project’s preliminary progress having now analyzed thousands fo cell towers and taken million of individual measurements.
  • OTF’s support to The University of Maryland for work on the innovative circumvention approach Geneva has contributed to the detection of a second, whitelist-based censorship system being deployed inside Iran. Understanding and countering this new system will be vital to perserving Iranian citizens’ access to the uncensored internet going forward. The Geneva team also recently launched a project site with more information on their circumvention approach and the tools they are developing.
  • 2019 OTF Information Controls Fellow Gabrielle Lim, with support from her host organization Data & Society, released Securitize/Counter-Securitize: The Life and Death of Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act. This report represents the culmination of Garielle’s fellowship work which sought to conceptualize and map the influence of disinformation in Malaysia by exploring how it is used as a justification for censorship-enabling legislation.
  • Following a phishing attack against a human rights lawyer, the Azerbaijan Internet Watch continued documenting and raising awareness of numerous hacking attempts aimed at civil society. These tactics are in line with previous efforts to disrupt and target those fighting for a more open and democratic society.

Legal

During the month of March, OTF finalized agreements to ensure the smooth transition of employees from RFA to the OTF corporation. Working in cooperation with RFA, OTF employees are able to transition without interruption to medical insurance benefits, life and disability insurance coverage, and retirement account benefits.

In addition, to further the understanding of compliance requirements, the oncoming OTF staff underwent grants management training provided by an outside expert consultant on U.S. Government grant funds. The outside consultant has also been engaged to do an audit of OTF’s purchasing and procurement procedures and will deliver recommendations to update and improve OTF’s compliance process.

Administration

OTF extended an offer to our new CFO, Heidi Pilloud, who will be starting on April 20, 2020, which is an auspicious day because the entirety of the OTF team will be on-board at the OTF Corporation that day as well! Corporate policies, SoPs, processes and inventory have been finalized and will be implemented with the OTF employees on April 20, 2020.

Finance

OTF is working with USAGM to finalize a grant amendment to facilitate drawdown of funding. As of April 17, 2020, all OTF third-party contracts through January 2020 will be assigned to the OTF Corporation as well as all intellectual property and intangible and tangible assets through executed agreements between RFA and OTF. RFA will continue to service these contracts with OTF funds remaining at RFA pursuant to a Service Agreement until the financial certification can be completed and a transfer of funds can occur in mid-June.

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Select news collected by OTF from the month of March 2020 - Get the full feed by signing up to receive the OTF newsletter or follow us on Twitter @opentechfund.

Huawei says its surveillance tech will keep African cities safe but activists worry it’ll be misused | Quartz

Twitter delete 20,000 fake accounts linked to Saudi, Serbian and Egpytian governments | The Guardian

Iran launched an app that claimed to diagnose Coronavirus. Instead, it collected location data on millions of people. | Vice

8 million people can’t get news on the Coronavirus because their government is slowing down the internet. | Buzzfeed News

Coronavirus crisis awaken’s a sleeping giant: China’s youth. | New York Times

Dictatorships often start in the face of a threat: Un privacy chief warns of long-lasting theft of freedoms amid Coronavirus surveillance. | Independent

Russian telco hijacks internet traffic for Google, AWS, Cloudflare, and others | ZDNet

We mapped how Coronavirus is driving new surveillance programs around the world. | OneZero