A short history of SecDev
For over 16 years SecDev has led the way in innovation, developing cutting-edge tools and gaining deep insights into the burgeoning digital era. This brief chronicle offers a unique vantage point into the company's inception and its transformation over the years.
Start up and launch
SecDev Group was established in 2007 to develop innovative methods for assessing risk and opportunity in the digital world. Emerging from the University of Cambridge's Global Security Program, SecDev was co-founded by Rafal Rohozinski, Deirdre Collings, and Robert Muggah (Oxford), Canadian scholar-practitioners with backgrounds in security and development in crisis and conflict zones. The company initially was formed in response to escalating digital threats and the need for rapid, reliable analysis, focused internet regulation, censorship, and ICT in conflict and terrorism, as well as measuring the impact of digital transformation on regional and global security.
The trio of co-founders had spent considerable time in the previous Soviet Union, along with volatile regions in the Middle East and Africa, serving the UN and various other organizations. They experienced firsthand the transformative impact of information and communication technologies on the dynamics within these zones, as well as the essence of conflict itself. Drawing from their experiences in addressing issues like small arms and nuclear counter-proliferation, conflict resolution, humanitarian response, and ICT for development, they established SecDev. The name stands for “security and development”, and it was initially conceptualized as a 'think-do tank.' This meant it was designed to bridge the divide between academics and professionals in emerging fields crucial to individual, national, and global security.
During its start up phase, SecDev Group engaged in a collaboration with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), contributing to the formulation of a guidance document on armed violence reduction. In parallel, SecDev established a partnership with the U.S. Army War College, orchestrating a triad of workshops. These workshops provided a forum to critically evaluate the transformative impact of the Internet, social media, and cyber operations on the future landscape of peace and conflict.
Foundational years: ONI, IWM, Psiphon and Zeropoint
In the mid 2000s, SecDev co-founder Rafal Rohozinski (at the time the director of the Advanced Network Research Group , Cambridge Security Programme) partnered with Citizen Lab and Harvard University's Berkman Centre, thanks to a Ford Foundation Grant, to launch the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) and Information Warfare Monitor (IWM) projects. The OpenNet Initiative established a worldwide benchmark for evaluating internet controls, culminating in the publication of three volumes by MIT Press. By 2007, SecDev was instrumental in this achievement, with Rafal Rohozinski serving as a principal investigator, editor and contributor, leading research teams in Eurasia, and Secdev developing essential technologies and constructing an international network of researchers to support both projects.
During the same time, SecDev collaborated with Citizen Lab to launch an investigation into cyber-espionage under the Information Warfare Monitor project. The investigative team comprised SecDev staff, including Rafal Rohozinski, Greg Walton, Arnav Manchanda, and Nart Villeneuve (Psiphon CTO and Citizen Lab Fellow), in conjunction with Ross Anderson from the University of Cambridge. This SecDev-led inquiry resulted in the GhostNet report, which documented Chinese cyber espionage efforts against the Tibetan government in exile and an additional 130 targets globally and made the front cover of the New York Times.
SecDev also partnered with Citizen Lab on a range of other activities including co-founded the circumvention company Psiphon and the Canadian Cyber Dialogue. From 2009 to 2012, Rafal Rohozinski concurrently held the positions of CEO at both SecDev and Psiphon, successfully guiding Psiphon to profitability as a premier VPN service provider breaking through censorship in authoritarian states. As part of its relationship with the University of Toronto, SecDev and Psiphon provided funding for student internships and fellowships at Citizen Lab and Rohozinski was appointed as a Senior Advisor to the Citizen lab and fellow of the newly created Munk School of Global Affairs.
In 2009, capitalizing on its success with Ghostnet, SecDev broadened its business portfolio with the creation of an affiliated entity, Secdev Cyber. The objective was to commercialise the suite of tools and techniques developed for identifying digital espionage networks. With an emphasis on scale, SecDevCyber engineered a comprehensive solution for malware detection utilising Domain Name System (DNS) and also devised a separate platform designed to enhance anonymity during engagement with potential adversarial entities. In 2017, this arm of SecDev underwent a rebranding process and emerged as Zeropoint Security. Among its innovations, Zeropoint created Blackwatch, a worldwide internet censorship monitoring system employed by the BBC and various European and US broadcasters operating in Syria, China, Iran, and other authoritarian states. Today, Zeropoint serves a broad range of both public and private partners by providing high-level cybersecurity services. This entity now represents SecDev's specialised competency in the cybersecurity domain.
Operationalizing OSINT and spinning up a not-for-profit
In 2013, the ONI and IWM projects ended. At this time, SecDev was increasingly involved in applying its emerging open source methods to responding to crises in Syria, Palestine, and across the former Soviet Union. In response to the growing breadth and magnitude of activities, SecDev Group established a separate non-governmental organization in 2011. The SecDev Foundation was created to differentiate the Group's commercial endeavors from its committed initiatives focused on safeguarding the rights of vulnerable populations in the digital domain. At present, the Foundation boasts a global workforce of over 60 full-time and part-time employees, with operations globally and offices in Canada and Singapore. Deirdre Collings holds the position of Executive Director at the SecDev Foundation, guiding its mission and impact.
During those years, SecDev significantly enhanced its operational data collection and analytical capabilities. In 2009, SecDev embarked on a strategic partnership with Palantir and the governments of the US, UK, and Canada to advance our open-source cyber intelligence capabilities and reinforce information gathering methodologies. Its commercial collaborations extended to the US Department of Defence and the Combating Terrorism Technology Support Office, where we developed a suite of open-source intelligence tools for the US Special Operations Command and the US Marine Corps Information Operations Centre.
SecDev expertise further contributed to law enforcement operations in Latin America, where we delved into research surrounding the use of sophisticated communication technologies by Mexican gangs in US border regions. This was paralleled by our support to US and UK Ministries of Defence with open-source intelligence products in Libya and the Trans-Sahel region.
Beyond these operational feats, SecDev also played a pivotal role in shaping digital standards and capacities across various governmental departments. We collaborated closely with Canada's Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Public Safety, aiding in the development of digital diplomacy capabilities, strategies to prevent violent extremism, and the deployment of remote-sensing tools to bolster security.
Next generation risk consultancy: Applying AI to wicked global challenges
In 2017, SecDev Group underwent a strategic reorganization to merge open-source intelligence methodologies with the burgeoning fields of data science and AI, focusing on geopolitical, geospatial, and digital risk analytics. SecDev established a dedicated data science and AI team and by 2021, SecDev had developed a new technology stack fusing OSINT with emerging generative AI methods and approaches. SecDev's open-source intelligence practice matured, leading to the development of public health-based monitoring programmes aimed at countering digital harms and violent extremism. These programmes, implemented in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme, have made significant impacts in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and beyond, including Central Asia and Yemen.
That year, SecDev developed a urban and pandemic preparedness and recovery platform, including early warning forecasting tools, which were adopted by some of the world's largest technology platform companies. At the same time, SecDev took on the responsibility of establishing an Information Security Programme for Canada's national capital and served as the City’s CISO amid global challenges of the COVID pandemic and the onset of Russia's conflict with Ukraine. In partnership with the G100 and Melissa Hathaway, SecDev established the “leadership in the digital age” for board members and senior leadership of the Fortune 100.
SecDev also led development of the World Bank’s Digital Economy Country Assessment methodology and its application within the framework on World Bank’s Digital CASA project in Central Asia. Secdev with its Central Asian partner, the Civil Initiative for Internet Policy and OSCE co-convened the Central Asia Security Forum, broadening the dialogue between civil society and security forces of the central asian states around the mounting challenge of violent extremism in the region. This partnership led to SecDev advising major social media platforms including Facebook and TikTok on minimizing the harms caused by violent extremist groups on their respective platforms.
In 2022, under the leadership of Dr. Robert Muggah, SecDev broadened its service portfolio to include a new practice area focusing on urban security, climate change, and the green transition. Concurrently, the company deepened its engagement in strategic cyber defence and critical infrastructure protection, leveraging its extensive experience in the security and development sectors. Collaborating with international organizations such as the World Economic Forum, World Bank and USAID, along with other bilateral and multilateral agencies, SecDev began to extend its influential role in enhancing global cybersecurity and digital resilience.
Today, SecDev is a leading global consultancy at the intersection of geopolitical, digital, urban, energy, and cyber risk, delivering high-quality, data-driven advice by seamlessly integrating human and artificial intelligence. SecDev's foresight and global network have earned the trust of leaders in business, government, and intergovernmental organisations, driving transformative change and lasting value for a safer, more secure future.