Advocates Challenge Use of FinFisher Surveillance Software in Pakistan

The Pakistani human rights organisation Bytes for All is challenging the use of invasive surveillance software by the government of Pakistan. FinFisher, produced by Gamma International, a UK-based company named by Reporters Without Borders as one of five “corporate enemies of the internet” and “digital era mercenaries,” is notorious for its advanced spying and surveillance capabilities which are used to target human rights movements all over the world. For example, Egyptian protesters in March 2011 found documents pointing to the use of FinFisher by the Egyptian security services under Hosni Mubarak and in July 2012 Bloomberg reported on the targeting of Bahraini activists with the software.

Campaign poster from Bytes for All, Pakistan

Campaign poster from Bytes for All, Pakistan

FinFisher software is installed remotely through seemingly innocent software updates of regular programs such as iTunes or Firefox, or code embedded in an e-mail. The software cannot be detected by virus-scanners and works on all common mobile devices. Once installed, it allows the user to access all stored information and monitor even encrypted communication. Keystrokes can be logged, Skype conversations recorded and cameras and microphones can be activated remotely.

The problem with software like FinFisher is that it is “dual-use”: it can be used for legitimate purposes by government agencies to monitor criminals, but as researchers at Citizen Lab found, it is often sold to countries where the exercise of legitimate rights such as the right to free expression is considered criminal activity. Among the 36 countries listed by Citizen Lab that use or have used FinFisher many have a well-documented record of human rights violations, such as Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Ethiopia, Qatar, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

That list also includes Pakistan. Concerned with this violation of Pakistani citizens’ right to privacy , Bytes for All has filed a petition in the High Court of Lahore, seeking a response from the government of Pakistan to the following questions: (1) Why was FinFisher deployed in Pakistan and (2) Who authorised its deployment? Moreover, Bytes for All requested the Court to order the government to immediately halt all FinFisher activities, based on the grounds that its use clearly violates the fundamental rights of the people of Pakistan.

This is a pioneering legal bid. Previous action has been taken against FinFisher: the UK-based NGO Privacy International recently filed a request for judicial review of UK customs agency’s refusal to release information about the potential illegal export of FinFisher to countries with a record of human rights abuses. A complaint against Gamma International was also filed with the OECD for the use of FinFisher software in Bahrain, and Mozilla has taken steps to stop it from infringing upon its brand by letting the software pose as legitimate Firefox products. Challenging a government’s use of spying software, however, is relatively uncharted territory and could set an important precedent. On May 8, 2013, the High Court ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to carry out a full investigation into the FinFisher allegations and present its findings before the Court on June 24, 2013. This will be a case to watch.

Nani Jansen is Senior Legal Counsel with the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI). MLDI is working with its partners around the world to challenge internet censorship and surveillance. Bytes for All and MLDI are currently challenging the blocking of YouTube and other websites in Pakistan.


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