Jim Armitage: Profiting by helping brutal regimes to snoop


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The Independent Online

John le Carré’s latest novel is coloured by the great spy writer’s disenchantment with the privatisation of the intelligence world. He should have read the report that has just landed on my desk from Reporters Without Borders.

Usually, these documents are full of harrowing, but important tales of journalists being jailed, beaten up, even killed. But this latest one was troubling in a different way. It tells of the private companies that help regimes such as Bahrain, China, Iran and Syria snoop on the internet activities of their citizens.

I’m not going to profile them all but, this being a British newspaper, I’d like to introduce you to the Gamma Group. Based in Andover, this company sells advanced software to governments and law enforcement agencies that allows them to spy on their citizens’ computers. It’s canny stuff. It can infect an entire internet café to survey everyone there. Or it can be installed in a smartphone or computer through a piece of Trojan software that can then be remotely operated by the government agency.

Gamma’s kit has been repeatedly found in countries where journalists are routinely mistreated, most notably Bahrain, where many journalists have been  imprisoned and tortured. Among those targeted by Gamma’s FinFisher Technology was Ala’a Shehabi, a journalist and university lecturer in Bahrain who was sent emails which she found to be suspicious. She forwarded them for technical analysis to experts who detected FinFisher software in it.

Reporters Without Borders, Privacy International and other organisations have filed a complaint with the OECD. Gamma now reportedly claims Bahrain stole a demo version of the software and modified it.

Unlikely, says Eric King, head of research at Privacy International. Integrating FinFisher into a country’s network is an extremely complex process. Besides, any country with such a high level of sophistication would hardly bother using an off-the-shelf Trojan, it would develop its own.

Gamma International also allegedly offered to sell FinFisher to the Egyptian regime, according to documents found in an Egyptian intelligence office in 2011. Gamma says no deal was made. It did not respond to my emailed requests. Perhaps, for the sake of all The Independent’s journalists, I should be pleased about that.

If Gamma looks dubious, though, wait till you get a load of France’s Amesys. Now known as Bull/Amesys, it sold its software, known as EAGLE, to Libya while Gaddafi was in power. EAGLE was used to spy on journalists and human rights activists there, including the reporter Khaled Mehiri. The Wall Street Journal investigated its operations and found Gaddafi’s thugs had been using Amesys’ kit to spy on Mehiri’s emails for months, including his correspondence with the Al Jazeera news network.

He was summoned by Gaddafi intelligence and ordered to stop publishing statements from opposition activists. He was so scared that he took his family into hiding until the regime had been toppled. Now Amesys, which recently sold the EAGLE system to another IT firm, is being sued by the International Federation for Human Rights. Amesys says its contract with Libya was signed at a time of rapprochement with the West. Its equipment was aimed tackling al-Qaeda.

Blue Coat of California has sold similar kit to spies in Burma, Syria and other dodgy regimes, albeit through third parties. It claims that it was not responsible for how governments use its kit, and that, besides, no individual company could change the suppression of freedom of expression by itself.

I wonder if such an excuse would be enough to placate Mr le Carré?