Ethiopian political refugee living in London alleges he was victim of 'unprecedented example of espionage on British soil'

National Crime Agency urged to investigate after discovery of surveillance software on a computer belonging to Tadesse Kersmo

Media Editor

The National Crime Agency has been asked to investigate the alleged use of computer software to spy on an Ethiopian political refugee living in London in an unprecedented example of espionage on British soil.

The charity Privacy International has made a criminal complaint to the agency’s National Cyber Crime Unit following the detection of the surveillance software FinSpy on a computer belonging to Tadesse Kersmo, who fled to Britain from Ethiopia in 2009.

FinSpy, a “Trojan” programme which was developed and produced by the British-German company Gamma International, allows a remote user to gain full access to a targeted computer and even to turn on functions such as microphones and cameras to record the computer’s owner without their knowledge.

Mr Kersmo, a university lecturer, claimed that he had been the victim of espionage by the Ethiopian Government because of his involvement with the political opposition group Ginbot 7. “I felt that the United Kingdom was a safe and free country but I was wrong and I feel very disappointed,” he said.

The FinSpy surveillance software first appeared on his computer in 2012 and was only detected after the issue was highlighted in a study by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which reported on a campaign to infect computers with FinSpy by sending a rogue email containing pictures of Ginbot 7 members.

Mark Scott, a lawyer with London firm Bhatt Murphy, said there was no legal justification for the software. “If your computer is in the UK and it’s intercepted and that’s without lawful authority then that is a crime. It’s very difficult to see what lawful authority.”

Mr Scott said he knew of no other similar incidents.

Mr Kersmo told a London press conference on Monday that documents and audio clips from Skype conversations involving him and other Ginbot 7 members had been published in doctored format online in order to discredit him. He said that the leaders of Ginbot 7 – a pro-democracy group formed from Ethiopian exiles in the United States and Europe – had feared they had a mole in their ranks. “The main purpose was probably to create suspicion among the executive committee members and it did to some extent.”

Calling on the NCA to investigate, he said: “It’s not only (about) my own personal liberty but also the UK’s interests and other Ethiopian citizens who live in the UK.”

Eric King, head of research for Privacy International, said: “Even when someone flees persecution in their own country, western-made surveillance technologies such as FinSpy can still be used by repressive regimes to monitor the moves of political activists anywhere around the world.”

The charity said that FinSpy was extremely difficult to detect. Trojan programmes are usually triggered by opening an email or download containing the invasive software.

According to the Citizen Lab research, command and control servers for FinSpy have been set up in 35 countries, including Ethiopia, Turkmenistan, Bahrain and Malaysia. Privacy International has asked HMRC to say whether Gamma International has an export licence for distributing the software to these regimes. Mr Scott said: “If the software needs to be exported to a country outside the European Union it requires an export licence. As far as the information we have, there has been no licence granted to Ethiopia or indeed any other country.”

John Campbell, a senior lecturer at the University of London’s SOAS, said the FinSpy case had “extensive implications” for the Home Office and could lead to more asylum claims if political opponents were being subjected to computer espionage. He said that scores of Ethiopian political dissidents had been arrested since the 2005 national elections and that some had been given life sentences.

Gamma International could not be reached for comment

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future