Digital snooping spreading to smaller countries

Digital snooping spreading to smaller countries

Nearly three-dozen smaller, poorer nations have started using cyber espionage tools in recent years, according to new research, showing the rapidly advancing popularity of digital snooping.

Researchers at the University of Toronto have discovered 32 countries using spyware from FinFisher, a company based in Germany that makes surveillance software.

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The spying tools are not always being used to combat crime and terrorism, either, as FinFisher claims. The spyware in many of these countries has been tied to hacks of journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and opposition political leaders.

“Although marketed as a tool for fighting crime, the spyware has been involved in a number of high-profile surveillance abuses,” said the report from The Citizen Lab, a research team that has long tracked government hacking.

FinFisher’s software can infiltrate computers and phones to scoop up messages, record calls and remotely turn on a webcam.

Users span the globe, from Central and South America to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Many of the countries are U.S. allies, such as Belgium, Italy, Mexico and Spain. Others are nations struggling with unrest, such as Egypt and Turkey.

The researchers also discovered evidence the tools are being used by intelligence agencies in Bangladesh and Kenya that have been tied to human rights abuses.

“As customer lists grow, so should concern over the documented abuse potential of intrusion software," the report said. "Some governments clearly believe that it can be used, with proper oversight, in the service of legitimate criminal investigations and intelligence gathering. However, there are also well documented cases in which government customers have abused intrusion software to compromise political opponents within their borders, and overseas.”

The latest research comes on the heels of similar revelations about another private company, Hacking Team, which is accused of selling its spyware to authoritarian regimes and U.S. authorities.

The Italian company may have even violated international law by selling spyware to the Sudanese government.

Hacking Team’s leaked client list included a series of governments with poor human rights records, including Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. The Citizen Lab’s research shows all those countries are also using FinFisher surveillance tools.

Ethiopia has even been caught employing FinFisher software to snoop on Ethiopian journalists in Washington, D.C.