Turkey Surveillance: No, Not the Bird Watching Context

November 20, 2019

A company that makes surveillance software and sells it assorted governments, FinFisher, is fighting back against Netzpolitik, a website working to hold such companies accountable. Bloomberg declares, “Clash Over Surveillance Software Turns Personal in Germany.” Netzpolitik and several advocacy groups filed a criminal complaint against FinFisher, alleging it had sold its spyware to Turkey without the required German federal license. Such complaints are not new, but this one named names within FinFisher as responsible parties. An investigation has been opened by Munich prosecutors.

Not only does FinFisher deny supplying Turkey with spyware, it also claims Netzpolitik is unjustly prejudicing the investigation. It issued a cease-and-desist letter demanding an article about the Turkey allegations be taken down. Though the site’s owner insists the reporting is accurate, he removed the article to avoid the legal fight and a potential injunction. Reporter Ryan Gallagher writes:

“Netzpolitik filed the complaint against FinFisher in collaboration with Reporters Without Borders Germany, the Society for Civil Rights and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. It alleges that covert operators of FinFisher’s technology set up a fake Turkish-language opposition website and Twitter accounts that were used to lure government critics into clicking on a malicious link. It isn’t clear who created the website and social media profiles. FinFisher says it ‘partners exclusively with Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agencies,’ according to its website.

“People who clicked the link — sent through the fake Twitter accounts to supporters of the opposition Republican People’s Party — were prompted to download an Android application that was in fact surveillance software, which would monitor their calls, text messages, photos, and location data, according to a technical report published by the digital rights group Access Now. Source code found on the website used to target the Turkish activists was ‘practically identical’ to the source code of FinSpy, surveillance software developed by FinFisher, the complaint alleges.”

FinFisher is no stranger to scrutiny. News articles have been written, advocacy group reports have been issued, and a WikiLeaks data release has been lobbed. Just recently, Reuters linked the company’s tech to an Uzbekistan agency’s effort to spy on activists and journalists. FinFisher claims it no longer trucks with governments outside the EU unless they are an “EU-001” designated country. (That list includes the likes of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the U.S.) Though other countries may retain old versions of the technology, AccessNow’s chief technologist notes that licensing restrictions and required updates would make them difficult or impossible to use without FinFisher’s support.

Cynthia Murrell, November 20, 2019

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