The Citizen Lab, a Toronto research group that exposes cyberspying and internet censorship, has won a prestigious $1-million grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

The Citizen Lab, which is based at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, was one of seven institutions in three countries to win a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. It is the first Canadian organization to win the award, which has been given annually since 2006.

The awards, which do not seek or accept nominations, recognize "exceptional" organizations that generate provocative ideas, reframe the debate or provide new ways of looking at persistent problems, according to the website of the foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the U.S.

In a news release Wednesday announcing the award, the foundation praised the "power and relevance" of the Citizen Lab's work. It cited reports that exposed monitoring activities and privacy breaches by governments and other entities, such as Chinese malware targeting high-profile political, economic and media organizations in 103 countries.

"Through its evidence-based, policy-relevant research, the Citizen Lab helps human rights and other nonprofit organizations monitor the exercise of political power by governments in cyberspace and the human rights abuses that can result," the foundation said in the release.

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Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab, said the award will enable citizen lab to 'continue to work independent of government and corporate interests.'

The group has also influenced internet policymaking, the release said. It noted that after the Citizen Lab reported that Syria was using internet filtering and surveillance devices made by a U.S. company, the U.S. government fined a company in the United Arab Emirates $2.8 million for illegally exporting the products to Syria.

'Game changer'

Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab, called the award a "game-changer" for his organization. In a statement, he added: “It will enable us to continue to work independent of government and corporate interests and not be afraid to tackle the tough problems hidden beneath the surface of the internet that deserve the public’s attention.”

The MacArthur Foundation said the goal of the award is to enable long-term planning and financial stability for the recipient organizations.

The Citizen Lab says it will use the award mainly as a permanent endowment to support its core operations, with a small amount set aside to better communicate its research to the public.

Four other winners of $1-million grants were:

  • The National Housing Trust, based in Washington, D.C.
  • NatureServe, a nature conservation science group based in Arlington, Va.
  • ProPublica, a New York-based organization focused on investigative journalism
  • University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Two $750,000 awards were given to:

  • The Campaign Legal Center in Wahsington, D.C., which "uses legal expertise to reduce the corrosive influence of money in politics."
  • Women's Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative in Abuja, Nigeria.

The University of Winnipeg won an $800,000 US grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2010, but that was not part of the same awards program.