A Citizen Lab report released Thursday revealed that 33 countries are likely using FinFisher, a prominent spyware program. Many of these countries—including Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Egypt—have suspect human rights standards.

FinFisher enables an organization or government to capture the keystrokes of a computer, as well as use the device’s microphone and camera to surreptitiously eavesdrop on a target. This type of surveillance tool was once only used by advanced governments, but is now available to anyone willing to invest in the service. In the U.S., journalists and dissidents are especially targeted.

Hackings in the past two years have informed researchers about the mechanics of spyware companies. FinFisher was hacked last year, revealing confidential company logistics, and its competitor Hacking Team was hacked this past year, exposing vital emails and files. Errors in spyware servers help Citizen Lab researchers figure out which governments are using the services of companies like FinFisher or Hacking Team.

Spyware servers used by governments often infect and control target computers with malware disguised behind proxies. Researchers found that 135 servers matched the “technical fingerprint” of shady spyware after scanning the Internet, yet they were always directed to a decoy page after typing the server’s Internet address into a Web browser. The decoy pages were most often www.google.com or www.yahoo.com.

However, the decoy sites showed local search results of the server’s origin, and not of the location that the researchers were in when they used the site. One proxy server seemed to be from the United States, then returned an IP address from Indonesia, indicating that the country’s government may be using FinFisher’s services.

Article via The Washington Post, 16 October 2015

Photo: Patrons use computers in an internet cafe via World Bank Photo Collection [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]

In July of 2015, 400 gigabytes of documents outlining the dealings of spyware company Hacking Team were released. The for-profit surveillance firm was found to work with oppressive regimes across the globe, including those of Russia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Also benefiting from the company’s exploitive surveillance tools is the US Bureau of Investigation, which has spent $775,000 on Hacking Team tools since 2011.

Hacking Team’s abilities are expansive. The firm can steal pre-encrypted data and passwords typed in Web browsers, as well as activate the microphone and camera on a target device. Users of Google Play and Apple stores may also be activating surveillance malware coded by Hacking Team.

Privacy and human rights advocates are outraged by the lack of legislation regulating firms like Hacking Team and its rival Gamma International, but regulation can be tricky. Badly drafted export controls could create red tape for journalists to circumvent when trying to access communications mechanisms or antivirus software. Syrian activists, for example, have cited American export controls as one of the leading obstacles of installing anti-surveillance software on phones and computers to protect their communications from the Assad regime.

The discussion is subtle, as it must take into account the personal liberties of global citizens, the dynamic nature of the technology industry, and the diverse interests of country governments.

Article via Committee to Protect JournalistsJuly 13, 2015

Photo: On the Phone via Artform Canada [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]