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U of T’s Citizen Lab wins Canada’s first MacArthur Foundation award

Ron Diebert, Director, The Canada Centre for Global Security Studies and the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

Amanda Lowe/Globe Video

Canada's leading research hub on issues of digital freedom has won a million-dollar award from one of the world's leading philanthropic foundations.

The Citizen Lab, a research firm run out of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, becomes the first Canadian organization to win the MacArthur Foundation's Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

One of the country's most high-profile digital think tanks, the Citizen Lab has created for itself a reputation in the last few years as an investigator of digital rights abuses ranging from censorship to hacking to surveillance. Among the group's many reports was one that detailed the filtering and surveillance tools used by the Syrian government. Following the report's publication, the U.S. government issued a multimillion-dollar fine against Blue Coat Systems, an American firm whose tools were used by the Syrian government.

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"For us, this award is a game-changer because it really allows us to create a permanent endowment," said Citizen Lab director Ronald Deibert.

"For an organization like Citizen Lab, something like this is really important because we don't take funds from governments or private companies."

The MacArthur Foundation specifically noted the Citizen Lab's mix of academic research and digital forensics – the latter often carried out by researchers in myriad dangerous corners of the planet, where the subjects of their investigation are often powerful government entities.

"The power and relevance of the Citizen Lab's work has been illustrated in groundbreaking reports that exposed monitoring activities and privacy breaches by governments and other entities, including a report exposing Chinese malware, or malicious software, that infiltrated high-profile political, economic and media organizations in 103 countries," the foundation noted.

"The Lab's work is impacting Internet policymaking in countries including the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and in the European Union."

Based in Chicago, the MacArthur Foundation is perhaps best-known for its "genius grants," handed out yearly to individual researchers, academics and others whose work the organization considers exceptional or groundbreaking.

The Citizen Lab is one of seven non-profit groups to receive the version of that award for organizations this year. The only other winner this year not based in the U.S. is the Women's Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative, a group that works to promote and protect women's rights in Nigeria.

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Among the American groups chosen this year were the investigative journalism hub Propublica and the National Housing trust, which works to improve affordable housing across the country.

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