It’s one of the world’s best-known and elusive cyber weapons: FinFisher, a spyware sold by U.K.- based Gamma Group, which can secretly take remote control of a computer, copying files, intercepting Skype calls and logging every keystroke.
For the past year, human rights advocates and virus hunters have scrutinized FinFisher, seeking to uncover potential abuses. They got a glimpse of its reach when a FinFisher sales pitch to Egyptian state security was uncovered after that country’s February 2011 revolution. In December, anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks published Gamma promotional videos showing how police could plant FinFisher on a target’s computer.
“We know it exists, but we’ve never seen it — you can imagine a rare diamond,” says Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at Helsinki-based data security company F-Secure Oyj. He posted the Egypt documents online last year and said if a copy of the software itself were found, he’d write anti-virus protection against it.
Now he may get his wish.
Researchers believe they’ve identified copies of FinFisher, based on an examination of malicious software e-mailed to Bahraini activists, they say. Their research, which is being published today by the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs’ Citizen Lab, is based on five different e-mails obtained by Bloomberg News from people targeted by the malware.
Pro-democracy activists received the malware in Washington, London and Manama, the capital of Bahrain, the Persian Gulf kingdom that has been gripped by tension since a crackdown on protests last year.
The findings illustrate how the largely unregulated trade in offensive hacking tools is transforming surveillance, making it more intrusive as it reaches across borders and peers into peoples’ digital devices. From anywhere on the globe, the software can penetrate the most private spaces, turning on computer web cameras and reading documents as they are being typed.
“Selling software that allows for the taking over of computers without rule of law can lead to abuse,” says Courtney Radsch, senior program manager for freedom of expression at Washington-based Freedom House, which promotes human rights.
Gamma executive Martin J. Muench declined immediate comment pending research after being e-mailed a Web link to the Citizen Lab report and questions related to its findings. Muench, who leads the FinFisher product portfolio, is the managing director of the group’s Munich-based Gamma International GmbH. Gamma Group also markets FinFisher through Andover, England-based Gamma International UK Ltd.
Muench said in a July 23 e-mail that the company can’t comment on any individual customers and that Gamma complies with the export regulations of the U.K., U.S. and Germany.
Muench, 30, said in that e-mail that FinFisher is a tool for monitoring criminals, and that to reduce the risk of abuse of its products the company only sells FinFisher to governments.
The recipients of the Bahrain-related e-mails — who include a naturalized U.S. citizen who owns gas stations in Alabama, a London-based human rights activist and a British-born economist in Bahrain — each say they don’t know of any law enforcement investigations or charges against them.
Two of the recipients said they were suspicious of the e-mails and didn’t click on the attachments, while the third said he tried and failed to download an attachment to his Blackberry.
The analysis of their e-mails showed the malware they received acts as a Trojan, a type of software named after the legendary wooden horse that Greek warriors used to sneak into Troy before sacking the ancient city. It takes screen shots, intercepts voice-over-Internet calls and transmits a record of every keystroke to a computer in Manama.
Observation of a researcher’s purposely-infected laptop in Washington also showed the Trojan stole a password for an e-mail account, which was then accessed without permission.
The malware itself practically came with a product label for a brand of FinFisher called FinSpy, which is marketed for spying on computers: On the infected laptop, the computer code the malicious program installed bore multiple instances of the word “FinSpy,” an examination of the computer’s memory showed.
The technical evidence of a match came from the work of Morgan Marquis-Boire, a security researcher at Citizen Lab, who analyzed the infected e-mails for this story. He’s publishing the detailed report of the findings in a paper today through Citizen Lab, at http://citizenlab.org/2012/07/from-bahrain-with-love-finfishers-spy-kit-exposed.
Marquis-Boire extracted a signature from the activists’ samples — a sort of digital DNA. He then gave the signature to other researchers to see if they could find a matching sample they might have collected in the course of their work.
The needle-in-a-haystack search came up with a match: a program that bore the hallmarks of a demonstration copy of FinFisher.
The evidence that the new sample they found was FinFisher itself was persuasive, Marquis-Boire said, because the presumed demo connected back to two websites, one with “ff-demo” in the name and the other with “gamma-international” in the name. The latter website, in turn, was registered to Martin Muench at Gamma International in Munich, online registration data show.
Bahrain has no policy of targeting political activists through surveillance technology, Luma Bashmi, a spokeswoman for the government’s Information Affairs Authority, said in an e-mailed statement.
“Such allegations are taken very seriously and if there is any evidence that there is any misconduct in use of such technology, each case will be investigated immediately according to the laws and regulations of the Kingdom of Bahrain,” she said.
FinFisher is just one of many increasingly available weapons for sale in the global cyber-arms bazaar.
The hacking techniques go beyond traditional surveillance of phone calls, e-mails and text messages, which governments conduct by tapping into communications networks that pass through their territory. Reports in the past year of repressive regimes using Western gear for domestic surveillance led the U.S. and European Union to impose restrictions on sales to some countries, such as Syria.
Technologies such as FinFisher mark the next step in a digital arms race, and are provided by other companies, such as Milan-based HackingTeam, whose programs, once installed, transmit an infected computer’s activities. They are the retail cousins of state-made cyber weapons such as the Stuxnet computer worm, which damaged centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear plant and was jointly developed by the U.S. and Israel, according to the New York Times.
The discovery and tracking of such spyware shows how even the tiniest nations obtain cyber small arms and deploy them at home and across borders.
“We’re moving to a new place with surveillance,” says John Scott-Railton, a doctoral student at the University of California Los Angeles’ Luskin School of Public Affairs who has helped track Trojans in Libya and Syria, where he says pro-regime hackers cobbled together malware attacks from free or inexpensive products available online. He also coordinated research for this study, passing the first malware samples from Bloomberg to Marquis-Boire.
The Bahraini case is a breakthrough because it shows the use of a more sophisticated, invasive hacking tool available for purchase by nations that might not be able to develop their own cyber weapons, Scott-Railton says. “The time for active penetration by states at a widely deployable scale has come,” he says.
Hacker Turned Executive
Founded in 1990, Gamma Group relies on hacker-turned-executive Muench to market such capabilities to clients around the world. Just over six feet tall, Muench is a rock star of the global interception-technology conference circuit, listed in agendas only by his initials, MJM.
Wearing a trim black suit and skinny black tie, he attended the ISS World trade show, known in the industry as the Wiretapper’s Ball, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December. One of his talks was titled “Offensive IT Intelligence Information-Gathering Portfolio — An Operational Overview.”
FinFisher has such mystique that an intelligence worker who helps manage a Southeast Asian country’s cybersecurity said Muench’s presence at the show was the main reason he took extra precautions to detect hacker threats lurking in the wireless networks at the venue. The operative, who said he has attended a demonstration of the product, insisted that his name not be published because of his intelligence work.
FinFisher promotional materials provide a general view into its capabilities, without naming the countries where it’s sold.
“When FinSpy is installed on a computer system it can be remotely controlled and accessed as soon as it is connected to the internet/network, no matter where in the world the Target System is based,” a Gamma brochure published by WikiLeaks says.
In response to questions about FinFisher’s deployment, privately held Gamma issued a statement Jan. 27 that quoted Muench saying, “Most people understand that we can’t divulge details about our clients, the products they buy or how they use them — we don’t want to tip off the criminals!”
The statement addressed the documents found in Cairo, which priced the system at 388,604 euros ($470,000), including maintenance. Gamma said no sale was made, and the trial version shown during its pitch never targeted unwitting computer users.
“Gamma presented the product FinSpy showing its operational capabilities with a Gamma-supplied special target notebook for demonstration purposes only,” the statement said.
In the case of Bahrain, the malware did reach real targets, and led to an analysis of the software.
In Manama, Ala’a Shehabi, the U.K.-born economist, noticed she and other activists were receiving suspicious e-mails that purported to have news on topics including torture and prisoners. She forwarded them to Bloomberg.
Tests showed that the attached photos and documents would secretly install a program taking over their computers if clicked on and opened.
The analysis by Marquis-Boire exposed how the malicious program went through elaborate processes of hiding itself, running through a checklist of anti-virus programs to see if any were on the computer, and establishing a connection with the server in Manama to which it would send its data.
A dreadlocked New Zealander based in San Francisco, Marquis-Boire has plastered his laptop with a bumper sticker that says, “My other computer is your computer.” (He did the research separately from his job as a security engineer at Google Inc., which wasn’t involved in this project.)
The other half of the analysis involved watching the malware as it went about spying.
Bill Marczak, a computer science doctoral candidate at the University of California Berkeley, also received four samples from Shehabi. He installed the samples on a “virtual machine” on his laptop and monitored the Trojan’s behavior. Marczak, who spent his high school years in Bahrain, is a founding member of Bahrain Watch, a group that advocates for more transparent governance in the kingdom.
Marczak established the link to Bahrain by tracing the Trojan’s transmissions back to an Internet address in Manama. After receiving the fifth sample from Bloomberg News, Marczak found it led to the same online address.
Other information also pointed to FinFisher. Some details from FinFisher product specification documents obtained by Bloomberg News matched details of what Marczak found as he watched files stream out of his laptop.
According to the product specifications, when FinFisher filches Skype data, it transports the information back to the system’s operators in files prefaced with the number 14 and ending with a series of characters representing the time the file was created.
When Marczak made a Skype call on his infected machine in California, he watched the Trojan grab the data — and send it to Bahrain in files that, indeed, began with 14 and ended with a timestamp.
The apparent use of FinFisher against Bahraini activists underscores the need for broader Western export controls of surveillance technology, says Eric King, the head of research at London-based Privacy International.
The group’s lawyers informed U.K. regulators in a July 12 letter that it plans to sue the government for failing to enforce laws already on the books that give it the power to block exports that can be used to violate human rights.
“Plainly there is a very real risk, if not an inevitability, that surveillance equipment, such as the FinFisher products, has been, and continues to be, exported to countries where it is highly likely to be used for internal repression and breaches of human rights,” the letter to the U.K. secretary of state for business innovation and skills said.
The Department for Business is considering Privacy International’s letter and will respond, a spokesman said. The U.K. government has proposed that arms-related export controls followed by most Western nations be expanded to add certain surveillance technology, and is pursuing this with other countries, the department said in a statement.
Tensions have simmered in Bahrain since the government cracked down on mass protests last year involving opponents of Sunni Muslim rule over the Shiite majority. At least 35 people died in the violence between Feb. 14 and April 15, 2011, including four police officers and a soldier, according to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the unrest and found instances of torture. Low-level protests continue in the island nation of 1.2 million people, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Three Bahraini dissidents who said they received the malware-laden mailings were in Washington, London and Manama when the malware attempted to infect their computers in April and May. The first e-mails they received, sent in April, were titled “Existence of a new dialogue – Al-Wefaq & Government authority” and, in Arabic, “Events this week.”
E-mails sent in May had the subject lines “Torture reports on Nabeel Rajab,” a reference to a jailed opposition leader; “King Hamad Planning,” a reference to the Bahraini king’s trip to London for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee; and “Breaking News from Bahrain — 5 Suspects Arrested.”
Husain Abdulla, a U.S. citizen who is director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, said he tried to download the “Existence of a new dialogue” attachment on his Blackberry while walking from a Washington Metro station to meetings at a Congressional office building.
Abdulla, 34, the Mobile, Alabama-based owner of gas stations, now is considering lawsuits and a complaint to the U.S. State Department about the border-crossing hack.
“I’m going to take any legal venue I can to protect myself,” Abdulla says.
Shehabi, 31, whose e-mails were the first to be analyzed for the study, is a British-born Bahraini activist and an economics lecturer with a PhD from Imperial College London. She received the e-mails in Bahrain.
“This was an attempt at violating my privacy in a country that does not believe in privacy rights,” she says. “The U.K. company is responsible for selling infiltration tools to a government they know will use them to repress pro-democracy activists.”
London-based Bahraini activist Shehab Hashem, 29, says he received three of the e-mails after he travelled to Sweden and Switzerland to draw attention to human rights violations in Bahrain. Two of those were identical to e-mails Shehabi received. The other, which he provided to Bloomberg News, was the fifth sample in the study.
“I thought it was just spam,” he says. “I never thought that someone would be interested in hacking into my computer.”
In Finland, Hypponen said before the publication of today’s report that he and other malware hunters would enjoy dissecting a FinFisher sample.
“There’s lots of chitchat amongst the security people about how it might work, but it’s mostly just speculation. Nobody knows for real,” he said.
Identifying FinFisher could turn the tables. “It’s hard for them to sell a tool to secretly infect computers if anti-virus programs can detect it,” he said.
By Vernon Silver