U.K. Slaps Export Controls on Spyware Marketed to Authoritarian Regimes

The British government has imposed export controls on a surveillance tool used by authoritarian regimes to track down and spy on dissidents.

The FinSpy trojan can take over smartphones and computers and remotely activate microphones, log keystrokes and monitor calls on Skype.  It’s part the FinFisher commercial surveillance toolkit sold by U.K. firm Gamma International, which markets the software to governments and law enforcement.

Earlier this year Bloomberg News reported evidence that Gamma’s FinSpy tool had been used against dissidents in Bahrain during the Arab Spring uprising that was crushed with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia.  Later, the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs published a report that found FinSpy software running on servers in at least 12 countries, including Bahrain, Turkmenistan, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates.  The list also included a server in the U.S., but analysts determined that it was most likely serving as a proxy for another server based elsewhere.

In the aftermath of Egypt’s successful revolution, documentation surfaced of Gamma’s FinFisher sales pitch to that country’s State Security Investigation Department.

The British government action was triggered by a June letter from British NGO Privacy International pressing the U.K. government to enforce existing laws that should require Gamma to obtain a license to sell the system outside the European Union.

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