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

Multimedia Obama Defends Immigration Action

Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on 'felons, not families; criminals, not children' More

US-Led Airstrikes in Syria Kill Over 900: Monitoring Group

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the toll includes more than 50 civilians, five of them women and eight of them children More

Report: Obama Broadens US Combat Role in Afghanistan

The New York Times says resident Barack Obama has signed a classified order extending the role of US troops in Afghanistan for another year 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.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid