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Computer spyware used to track dissidents

by on31 August 2012

Two men track the tool use

Software designed for criminal investigations is being used by governments with dodgy human rights records to track down dissidents. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Morgan Marquis-Boire and Bill Marczak have been moonlighting as detectives, chasing an elusive surveillance tool from Bahrain across five continents.

FinSpy which is sold for use only in criminal investigations, the two came across evidence that it was being used to target political dissidents. The software can grab images of computer screens, record Skype chats, turn on cameras and microphones and log keystrokes. The two men said they discovered mobile versions of the spyware customised for all major mobile phones. It is designed to elude anti-virus software made by Kaspersky Lab, Symantec, F-Secure and others. 

They have found it being used in Turkmenistan, Brunei and Bahrain, although no government acknowledges using the software for surveillance purposes. FinSpy is made by the Gamma Group, a British company that says it sells monitoring software to governments solely for criminal investigations. But protesters crashing through Egypt's state security headquarters discovered a document that appeared to be a proposal by the Gamma Group to sell FinSpy to the government of president Hosni Mubarak for $353,000.

Martin Muench said the Gamma Group sold FinSpy to governments only to monitor criminals and that it was most frequently used "against paedophiles, terrorists, organised crime, kidnapping and human trafficking". But Marquis-Boire and Marczak looked at some suspicious emails sent to three Bahraini activists. They discovered all the emails contained spyware that reported back to the same command-and-control server in Bahrain. The spyware was monitoring Bahraini activists who had no criminal history.

Since publishing their findings, Marquis-Boire and Marczak started receiving malware samples from other security researchers and from activist groups that suspected they may have been targets. In several cases, the two found that the samples reported back to websites run by the Gamma Group. But other samples appeared to be actively snooping for foreign governments.

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