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

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

Election Campaigning Begins in Ivory Coast

No one expecting a repeat of 2009-2010 post-election conflict, but campaign getting off to tense start with only 4 of 10 candidates agreeing to sign code of good conduct More

Indian PM Calls for Unity Amid Tense Climate Over Beef Attacks

Recent series of beef-related incidents seen as signs of rising intolerance toward Muslims and other religious minorities More

This forum has been closed.
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.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs