News / Science & Technology

Commercial Spyware Raises Privacy Concerns

In a screenshot from a Hacking Team promotional video, the company touts its ability to surveil potential targets.
In a screenshot from a Hacking Team promotional video, the company touts its ability to surveil potential targets.

Related Articles

Web Companies Give First Look at Secret US Government Data Requests

Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google begin publishing details about the number of secret government requests for data they receive, hoping to show limited involvement in controversial surveillance efforts

Sochi Games Present Hacking Minefield

If you do not need the device, do not take it, US State Department warns
While the National Security Agency has been getting a lot of attention for its global surveillance endeavors, a small army of private and often secretive companies is quietly peddling spyware with NSA-like capabilities to governments around the world.  Among their clients; the NSA.

Many of these products go beyond simple monitoring of huge amounts of traffic or stealing files. These new programs can target individuals, infect their computers, phones, web cameras or other devices to watch and record the every move of people targeted.

The software does have legitimate uses such as gathering data about criminal activities, but critics say it too often is used by authoritarian regimes to spy on their own people.

The most recent public case involves an American citizen who goes by the alias “Mr. Kidane.”

According to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, or EFF, which is representing Mr. Kidane, he is suing the Ethiopian government “for infecting his computer with secret spyware, wiretapping his private Skype calls, and monitoring his entire family's every use of the computer for a period of months.”

"We have clear evidence of a foreign government secretly infiltrating an American's computer in America, listening to his calls, and obtaining access to a wide swath of his private life," EFF attorney Nate Cardozo said in a statement.

"The current Ethiopian government has a well-documented history of human rights violations against anyone it sees as political opponents,” he said. “Here, it wiretapped a United States citizen on United States soil in an apparent attempt to obtain information about members of the Ethiopian diaspora who have been critical of their former government. U.S. laws protect Americans from this type of unauthorized electronic spying, regardless of who is responsible."

The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington did not respond to calls seeking comment on the case.

‘Lawful Intercept’ Spyware

The spyware allegedly used against Mr. Kidane is something called FinSpy, EFF said. FinSpy is a suite of programs marketed to governments by the Gamma Group of Companies, a U.K.-based software company.

Gamma is one of a growing number of companies offering sophisticated surveillance software and support to governments and law enforcement around the world.

Infection is as easy as luring a target to click a mouse, analysts say. The most common way computers and other devices are infected with the spyware is through bogus email attachments which contain the hidden spyware. Once infected, the software is capable of a wide variety of surveillance and is very hard to detect.

Many of the companies boast about how off-the-shelf security software can’t detect their products.

Bill Marczak, a researcher for Citizen Lab, which conducts research on the intersection of communication technologies and human rights, called these kinds of software “a new trend in repression.” He added that the $5 billion industry is “large and secretive” and “until recently, it was in the shadows.”

He’s not the only one concerned. Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a press freedom watchdog group, went so far as to call Gamma among 2013’s “enemies of the Internet.” It named other companies including Hacking Team.

Eric Rabe, a spokesman for Hacking Team, called the accusation “absurd” in an email, adding that the company’s “products are significant tools to prevent Internet users from becoming Internet victims.”

“The products that Hacking Team offers serve to protect users from the abuses that can be extremely serious,” he said. “For example, there have been many examples of economic crime — fraud, holding computer operating systems for ransom, stealing financial data and so forth.”

Hacking Team is alleged to have provided offensive “legal intercept” surveillance software to 21 countries, according to a recent report by Citizen Lab. 

Among the countries Citizen Lab said Hacking Team software was found are several with questionable human rights records such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Sudan. The report also alleges that Hacking Team software was used to spy on Ethiopian journalists based in the Washington area.

The Gamma Group also has broad international reach. It was trying to sell one of its products, FinFisher, to the government of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, according to documents uncovered by protesters. The company was trying to sell its FinFisher spyware to Egypt’s security forces for over $300,000 and even offered a free trial.

Gamma told the Guardian newspaper it had not sold products or provided any training to the Egyptian government and that it complies with relevant import and export regulations when selling to governments. Like Hacking Team, the company keeps its client list confidential.

According to Citizen Lab, spyware has been used against activists in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and against an Ethiopian journalist in the UK. There have also been reports of spyware being used against citizen journalists in Morocco and against an American who appears to have been targeted by someone in Turkey connected to the powerful Gülen Movement.

Murky Regulation

Attempts to regulate the industry have fallen short. Reporters Without Borders says spyware like that sold by Hacking Team and Gamma have been included in the Wassenaar Arrangement, which promotes “transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies.”

However, the press advocacy group says governments have “not yet put these negotiations into force.”

Researcher Marczak is skeptical about the ability to regulate.

“We’re just relying on the company’s word,” he said.  With regard to Hacking Team, Marczak adds that “what we’ve seen so far when we uncover their products, the first thing we hear is that they didn’t sell it.”

“The confidentiality of their clients is a primary goal,” he said. “I’m not optimistic that compliance can be verified.”

Rabe said Hacking Team is aware of the recent change in the Wassenaar Arrangement and is studying it.

Similar to the NSA surveillance programs, there are legitimate uses for software made by companies like Gamma and Hacking Team, such as infiltrating cyber criminal rings or finding underground pedophile networks.

“We work to keep our products out of the hands of government agencies that would abuse them,” Rabe said. “We have refused to deal with clients we believe might abuse our products. We have suspended support for our software (making it ineffective) in the past when we have discovered misuse of our software, however, we do not disclose details of such actions.”

The company said it reviews potential customers to make sure their technology will not be “used to facilitate human rights violations” by establishing outside panel of technical experts and legal advisors, unique in our industry, that reviews potential sales.”

Here's Hacking Team's promotional video:

You May Like

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid