Not Just Russians: Britain’s Webcam Computer Spies

One of the major stories over the past week or so has been that a Russian website is showing hacked images from webcams from around the world, including about 600 or so from Britain. This has naturally caused alarm at the way the potential exists for people’s private computers to be attacked and used to spy on them.

The Russians, however, are not the first or only people to have developed and used such software. In its ‘In the Back’ section for the 22nd August – 4th September issue of this year, Private Eye published a story about the use of similar software developed by a British company. This was being used by the Bahraini government to spy on and persecute dissidents. Here’s the story.

Bahrain Shower

New documents reveal that expensive British spy software – marketed as a means of tracking “paedophiles and terrorists” – has been used by the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior to hack the phones and computers of activists and lawyers.

The software, sold by Gamma Group, a company based out of serviced offices in Winchester, works by sending malware called FinSpy to “target” computers and phones (see Eyes 1368 and 1351). This allows content to be harvested and turns the computer or phone into a mobile spying device by secretly activating the microphone and webcam and intercepting Skype calls.

Gamma Group, which had not applied for an export licence from the UK authorities, denied last year that is product was being used in Bahrain. A spokesman told the Observer: “It appears that during a demonstration one of our products was stolen and has been used elsewhere. I believe a copy of FinSpy was made during a presentation and that copy was modified and then used elsewhere.

However, new documents obtained from the Gamma Group customer support server include logs sent to Gamma, showing a list of Bahraini targets and whether or not all their files had been “archived” – in other words, pinched Gamma says it only sells to government agencies.

Mohammed Al-Tajer, Bahrain’s leading human rights lawyer, has been on the wrong end of Gamma-inspired snooping. Having once defended a group of Shia Muslims accused of throwing a petrol bomb at a police car, and having also published evidence of torture of detainees, shortly before Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprising, in January 2011, he received a recording of himself having sex with his second wife, accompanied by a message telling him to watch his step. The new documents show that, on the same day in January, Gamma spyware was successfully installed on Al-Tajer’s computer, archiving all his files, in contravention of illegal privilege and most likely turning his computer into a mobile spying device.

In April 2011, Al-Tajer was then arrested and held by the Bahraini Ministry of the Interior for four months. Every morning he was made to stand against a wall and was beaten until he fainted. A subsequent report5 into the security services, commissioned by Bahrain’s King Hamad Al-Khalifa and carried out by human rights lawyers and others, found evidence of widespread torture, including “beating; punching; hitting the detainee with rubber hoses (including on the soles of the feet), cables, whips, metal, wooden planks or other objects; electrocution; sleep-deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; verbal abuse; threats of rape; and insulting the detainee’s religious sect Shia).” It also found evidence of deaths at the hands of the security forces.

In late 2011, Bahrain thought it had better do something to reform its police forces, bringing in a hired hand from overseas to ensure the force met international codes of practice. It wasn’t long before this new adviser was hailing the “substantial progress” being made, detailing a “new police code of conduct” and “comprehensive programme of training in human rights”, adding: “I am bewildered by the level of criticism aimed at a nation that has acknowledged its mistakes, but has plans in place to put things right.”

This state of bewilderment was presumably nothing new to the adviser, John “Yates of the Yard” Yates (for it was he”, who as Met Police assistant commissioner in London had overseen the Met’s brilliant early phone-hacking investigation and had personally declared that there were only a “handful of victims”. He later resigned when the number approached 4,000.

Even after Yates had begun his reforms in Bahrain, Al-Tajer continued to receive text message threats from anonymous telephone numbers; and in June 2012 the sex recording was finally published on YouTube, as was footage of Al-Tajer eating and praying.

Yates told the Eye he had never heard of Mohammed Al-Tajer (he was only the leading lawyer defending police cases, after all), nor of Gamma Group, and that he had had no operational involvement in police matters, acting solely as a “strategic adviser”.

* The hacker who posted internal Gamma documents on the internet showing how it FinSpy, aka FinFisher, software had been sold to the oppressive regime and used to spy on the Bahrain Independent Commission of Investigation (BICI), which was investigating torture and killings in the country, also revealed that the kit wasn’t quite as effective as Gamma likes to claim.

“After infecting a target’s [computer]the targets [sic] works for few days only then he never comes online and we have to infect him again,” the Bahrainis complained. “We can’t stay bugging and infecting the target every time since it is very sensitive. And we don’t want the target to reach [sic] to know that someone is infecting his PC or spying on him.”

I can’t say that the information that webcams could be hacked came as news to me. I can remember being told by a member of staff in one of Bristol’s computer shops that they had a friend, who was a hacker. This individual used to tap their victim’s webcams, so he could see them through the computer. The staff member, who told me this, didn’t approve of it himself, and really didn’t want anything to do with such activities. Nevertheless, hackers were still doing it.

This is very much the world of 1984, where Big Brother used the televisions in people’s homes to spy on them. In the case of the Russian hackers, despite their protestations that they are doing it to make people aware of the existence and the dangers posed by the software, it looks to me very much like the Russian secret services making veiled threats about their capability for cyberwarfare, espionage, and ability to intimidate foreign nationals in their own homes.

As for Gamma Group and the Bahrain government, Britain has, unfortunately, a long history of supplying arms and spying equipment to oppressive governments around the world, including the Middle East. This includes BAE selling weapons banned under international law, like electronic batons and shields, to places like Saudi Arabia. Gamma Group is merely the latest to join this long and infamous list.

Other foreign companies are no better. Nokia sold software it had developed to allow governments to hack into and monitor private mobile phones to various despotic governments in the Middle East, including Iran.

This does, however, raise the chilling question of whether this software is being used domestically to gather information on people the British and American states consider politically awkward. The Snowden revelations showed the truly massive extent to which both countries’ secret services were monitoring and spying on the phone calls and electronic communications of their citizens. The Coalition has attempted to censor politically inconvenient websites, like Pride’s Purge, using legislation it has attempted to pass under the pretext that this would protect children from internet paedophiles. The police have also been used by UKIP and fracking companies to harass and intimidate Green protestors and documentary film-makers.

How do we know that the Tories and their corporate backers aren’t using this already to track and monitor left-wing groups and individuals they consider subversive?

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5 Responses to “Not Just Russians: Britain’s Webcam Computer Spies”

  1. Pension60 Says:

    Long ago I heard of other firms doing the same thing. So I stick the white non-greasy Blu-Tack over the web cam camera on my computer all the time.

    But people next door can hear through baby monitors plugged into sockets, I’ve heard.

    Forget web cams. See people in person and talk with your own mouth, not some technical device inbetween you.

    It is called conversation, confabulation, confab, talking in person.

    And you get to drink a nice coffee in a coffee shop, especially now near Christmas when there are extra flavours to enjoy.

    I don’t need for political parties to use all this tech to find this poissed off 60 year old denied state pension payout
    whilst MPs are getting the same money in 2015
    as an 11 per cent pay rise, and
    women MPs keep 60 as a works pension payout age.

    Here is my link, read and weep for all those left
    with no food money for life,
    coming to women born from 1953 and men born from 1951.
    https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/state-pension-at-60-now

    No political party is offering to revoke the Pension Bills 2010-2014 that not only deny 7 years of state pension payout to a couple, but then go and morally thieve the state pension altogether.

    And the funny thing is all political propaganda is bollocks.

    Because all adults in the nation are 100 tax payers, from the 75 per cent of all taxes that come from stealth indirect taxes and VAT, on the most basic essentials.

    And the source of the state pension is the ring fenced and full National Insurance Fund, that has not needed a top up from tax for decades, so showing people growing older has had not one effect on the sustainability of the state pension.

    And 97 per cent of benefit goes to the working poor and poor pensioners.

    Pensioners are not all well off, but many have only the tiny state pension with benefits that barely pay pennies for food and the massive inflation to the poor of energy and food prices, as a percentage of the 20 per cent lowest income.

    And the working poor are increasing as employment rises, mostly in London.

    The working poor are the bulk of the lowest 20 per cent income, needing to go to food banks to be fed, of all ages.

    Half of all the over 50s / over 60s are within the working poor.

    The bulk reason over 50s not in work is due to disability and / or chronic illness.

    Get people off benefit and into work, does not solve starvation, because the working poor are the majority of those on benefit.

    They want to track me. Well 70 per cent of the electorate do not vote. Watch how in 2015 will see the lowest voter turnout in UK history.

    So politicans are wasting their money. Oh yes. Its our money.

  2. Equaliser Says:

    I’ve just read a report about Amnesty International producing an anti-spyware tool called “Detekt”.

    Is this the antidote?

    http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/new-tool-spy-victims-detect-government-surveillance-2014-11-20

    Of course, the spies and hackers will just keep tweaking away to keep one step ahead of the anti-spyware!

  3. Pendantic Geek Says:

    This wasn’t a hack! The cameras were either open to the web or had the default passwords. This was like handing out your door key to everyone in town then complaining when you get burgled.

  4. concernedkev Says:

    Reblogged this on concerndkev and commented:
    I had this experience the other night whilst signing a leftist petition. Without touching my computer the video cam activated. I immediately switched off my router and then switched back on and changed my access password. Several attempts have been made to hack my computer and they have been successful without me knowing. I keep checking my account and there is constant attempts to access from three main IPs addresses So as far as I am concerned you are right in what you are blogging

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kev. This sounds extremely worrying, and I wish you the best in keeping the hackers out.

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