CAIRO: As an Egyptian television show continues to broadcast activists’ private phone calls, the United Kingdom-based Privacy International (PI) won victory over Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) when a British court ordered it to reconsider a request to reveal investigations into the export of spyware to countries with “dismal” human rights records, such as Egypt and Bahrain.
According to a statement by the PI, HMRC had issued a “blanket refusal” of PI’s 2012 request. In its case file to the court, PI attached a scan of Egypt’s notorious State Security Investigations Department (SSI), which were leaked when the SSI’s headquarters was raided in March 2011, in the wake of the January 25 Revolution. The documents, viewed by The Cairo Post, suggest that U.K.-based Gamma International Egypt offered the FinFisher state-of-the-art commercial intrusion kit to the SSI in June 2010.
“[The U.K. government] should take responsibility for all dual-use exports that are knowingly sent to repressive governments that will likely use them for criminal activity including human rights violations such as Bahrain,”Ala’aShehabi, a Bahraini-British activist and alleged victim of FinFisher, said in PI’s statement.
Did Egypt purchase FinFisher?
Of the leaked SSI documents used by PI was an invoice dated June 29, 2010, which showed some of the components of FinFisher; the software, hardware, installation and training of FinSpy and FinFly Lite. FinFly Lite, downloaded to target devices in the guise of program updates, infects personal computers with FinSpy through a local network. FinSpy then enables its user to monitor personal computers remotely and with full access to all information on the computer, including Skype calls.
The alleged invoice also included additional second year support for the two spywares, making the whole contract worth 388,604 Euros ($533,048 or 3,791,304 EGP.)
Addressing the SSI head, a memorandum dated Dec. 20, 2010 and presented by the “hacking department” of the “surveillance group,” which belongs to the Information Technology Central Administration,stated that Gamma International’s offer of a free trial of FinFisher was based on two conditions:the SSI did not leak a copy of the spyware to any entity, and Gamma International did not disclose to any local or foreign entity that the SSI used the spyware.
The document also indicated that the trial lasted for nearly five months, proving in real life hacking and surveillance attempts that FinFisher was able to hack Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail and personal Skype accounts, which is “the most secure means of electronic communication for elements with harmful activity on the Internet, for being encrypted,” among other “advantages.”
Another document dated Dec. 22, 2010 stated that the head of the SSI approved the purchase, but that more technical details were needed for the finance department of the Ministry of Interior. The most recent document available in this regard was dated Jan. 1, 2011, and highly recommended the contract again.
A document dated Aug. 15, 2009, also spoke of an offer for a three-week free trial and a price of approximately two million EGP, suggesting that this was not the first offer to SSI by Gamma, which only sells this product to governments.
“Gamma International UK Limited has not supplied any of its FinFisher suit of products or related training etc. to the Egyptian government,” a statement by Gamma International said in April 2011, The Guardian reported.
Further evidence the PI cited was two activists, one of them Shehabi, who claims to have been subjected to surveillance by the Bahraini government using FinFisher. Her claim is supported by Citizen Lab, which investigated her laptop, according to PI’s case file. According to Citizen Lab’s May 2013 report, For Their Eyes Only: The Commercialization of Digital Spying, FinFisher was detected in 36 countries including Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Turkey, the U.K., the U.S., Canada, and Germany. Citizen Lab is based in Canada and focuses on the intersection of information and communication technology, human rights and global security, according to its website.
Egyptian activists and lack of privacy
Journalist Abdel Rahim Ali has broadcast on Al Kahera Wal Nas channel dozens of leaked phone calls belonging to several revolutionary activists since December 2013, implying that they are “spies” and “traitors.”
The calls were made by members of the April 6 Youth Movement Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, activists Abdel Rahman Yussuf, Asmaa Mahfouz and former parliamentarian Mostafa al-Naggar, among several others. Most recently, Ali broadcast a call by former Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei with an English language speaker whom Ali claimed was a CIA agent.
“Illegal recording of private phone calls poses dangers on the society. It is a violation of privacy that could be used to blackmail people,” Mohamed Mahmoud, a lawyer at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told The Cairo Post Thursday.
“The main purpose behind the leaks is slandering activists who demand civil and labor rights,” Mahmoud said.
Some of the calls seem to have been recorded on March 4 or 5, 2011 when the SSI was raided. The calls suggest that some activists raided and obtained SSI documents and hard drives.
Dozens raided the headquarters while military forces were present, and found huge piles of shredded documents inside the buildings, as well as files bearing the names of many activists and prominent figures that contained much information about each one. WikiLeaks offered to reconstruct the papers, but no reported cooperation took place.
Naggar and Yusuf publicly stated in Facebook posts that the recordings were “fabricated and edited to falsify charges against revolutionaries.” They filed lawsuits against Ali, but he was acquitted May 10 because he was “not the one who recorded the calls.”
Lawyer Samir Sabry, who filed lawsuits against the Muslim Brotherhood and April 6 resulting in the declaration of the former as“terrorist” and the banning of the latter, also filed a report on Jan. 1 to the Attorney General against Naggar, Yusuf and Mahfouz.
Sabry accused the three activists of storming the SSI and smuggling its documents. Since then, the activists have been investigated a number of times, but the case has not been referred to a court yet, Sabry told The Cairo Post.
Much like Sabry, five human rights organizations, including ANHRI, filed a report with the Attorney General on Dec. 31, 2013, requesting an investigation into the “illegal recording and broadcasting” of the private phone calls.
However, no investigation has been opened into their report thus far, Mahmoud said.