FinFisher can be covertly installed on targets' computers by exploiting security lapses in the update procedures of non-suspect software. The company has been criticized by human rights organizations for selling these capabilities to repressive or non-democratic states known for monitoring and imprisoning political dissidents. Egyptian dissidents who ransacked the offices of Egypt's secret police following the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reported that they had discovered a contract with Gamma International for €287,000 for a license to run the FinFisher software. In 2014, an American citizen sued the Ethiopian government for surreptitiously installing FinSpy onto his computer in America and using it to wiretap his private Skype calls and monitor his entire family’s every use of the computer for a period of months.
Lench IT Solutions plc has a UK-based branch, Gamma International Ltd in Andover, England, and a Germany-based branch, Gamma International GmbH in Munich. Gamma International is a subsidiary of the Gamma Group, specializing in surveillance and monitoring, including equipment, software, and training services. It was reportedly owned by William Louthean Nelson through a shell corporation in the British Virgin Islands. The shell corporation was signed by a nominee director in order to withhold the identity of the ultimate beneficiary, which was Nelson, a common system for companies that are established offshore.
On August 6, 2014, FinFisher source code, pricing, support history, and other related data were retrieved from the Gamma International internal network and made available on the Internet.
Elements of the FinFisher suite
In addition to spyware, the FinFisher suite offered by Gamma to the intelligence community includes monitoring of ongoing developments and updating of solutions and techniques which complement those developed by intelligence agencies. The software suite, which the company calls "Remote Monitoring and Deployment Solutions", has the ability to take control of target computers and to capture even encrypted data and communications. Using "enhanced remote deployment methods" it can install software on target computers. An "IT Intrusion Training Program" is offered which includes training in methods and techniques and in the use of the company-supplied software.
The suite is marketed in Arabic, English, German, French, Portuguese, and Russian and offered worldwide at trade shows offering an intelligence support system, ISS, training, and products to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Method of infection
FinFisher malware is installed in various ways, including fake software updates, emails with fake attachments, and security flaws in popular software. Sometimes the surveillance suite is installed after the target accepts installation of a fake update to commonly used software. Code which will install the malware has also been detected in emails. The software, which is designed to evade detection by antivirus software, has versions which work on mobile phones of all major brands.
A security flaw in Apple's iTunes allowed unauthorized third parties to use iTunes online update procedures to install unauthorized programs. Gamma International offered presentations to government security officials at security software trade shows where they described how to covertly install the FinFisher spy software on suspects' computers using iTunes' update procedures.
The security flaw in iTunes that FinFisher is reported to have exploited was first described in 2008 by security software commentator Brian Krebs. Apple did not patch the security flaw for more than three years, until November 2011. Apple officials have not offered an explanation as to why the flaw took so long to patch. Promotional videos used by the firm at trade shows which illustrate how to infect a computer with the surveillance suite were released by WikiLeaks in December, 2011.
FinFisher has also been found to engage in politically motivated targeting. In Ethiopia, for instance, photos of a political opposition group are used to "bait" and infect users.
Technical analysis of the malware, methods of infection and its persistence techniques has been published in Code And Security blog in four parts.
Use by repressive regimes
- FinFisher's wide use by governments facing political resistance was reported in March 2011 after Egyptian protesters raided State Security Investigations Service and found letters from Gamma International UK Ltd., confirming that SSI had been using a trial version for five months.
- A similar report in August 2012 concerned e-mails received by Bahraini activists and passed on (via a Bloomberg News reporter) to University of Toronto computer researchers Bill Marczak and Morgan Marquis-Boire in May 2012. Analysis of the e-mails revealed code (FinSpy) designed to install spyware on the recipient's computer. A spokesman for Gamma claims no software was sold to Bahrain and that the software detected by the researchers was not a legitimate copy but perhaps a stolen, reverse-engineered or modified demonstration copy. In August 2014 Bahrain Watch claimed that the leak of FinFisher data contained evidence suggesting that the Bahraini government was using the software to spy on opposition figures, highlighting communications between Gamma International support staff and a customer in Bahrain, and identifying a number of human rights lawyers, politicians, activists and journalists who had apparently been targeted.
- According to a document dated 7 December 2012 from the Federal Ministry of the Interior to members of the Finance Committee of the German Parliament, the German "Bundesnachrichtendienst", the Federal Surveillance Agency, have licensed FinFisher/FinSpy, even though its legality in Germany is uncertain.
- In 2014, an America citizen sued the Ethiopian government for installing and using FinSpy to record a vast array of activities conducted by users of the machine, all whilst in America. Traces of the spyware inadvertently left on his computer show that information – including recordings of dozens of Skype phone calls – was surreptitiously sent to a secret control server located in Ethiopia and controlled by the Ethiopian government. FinSpy was downloaded on the plaintiff's computer when he opened an email with a Microsoft Word document attached. The attachment contained hidden malware that infected his computer. In March 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the Ethiopian government's conduct was protected from liability by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
- In 2015, FinFisher was reported to have been in use since 2012 for the 'Fungua Macho' surveillance programme of Uganda's President Museveni, spying upon the Ugandan opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change.
Reporters Without Borders
On 12 March 2013 Reporters Without Borders named Gamma International as one of five "Corporate Enemies of the Internet" and “digital era mercenaries” for selling products that have been or are being used by governments to violate human rights and freedom of information. FinFisher technology was used in Bahrain and Reporters Without Borders, together with Privacy International, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, and Bahrain Watch filed an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) complaint, asking the National Contact Point in the United Kingdom to further investigate Gamma’s possible involvement in Bahrain. Since then research has shown that FinFisher technology was used in Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Britain, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Qatar, Romania, Serbia, Singapore, South Africa, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Venezuela and Vietnam.
FinFisher is capable of masquerading as other more legitimate programs, such as Mozilla Firefox. On April 30, 2013, Mozilla announced that they had sent Gamma a cease-and-desist letter for trademark infringement. Gamma had created an espionage program that was entitled firefox.exe and even provided a version number and trademark claims to appear to be legitimate Firefox software.
In an article of PC Magazine, Bill Marczak (member of Bahrain Watch and computer science PhD student at University of California, Berkeley doing research into FinFisher) said of FinSpy Mobile (Gamma's mobile spyware): "As we saw with respect to the desktop version of FinFisher, antivirus alone isn't enough, as it bypassed antivirus scans". The article's author Sara Yin, an analyst at PC Magazine, predicted that antivirus providers are likely to have updated their signatures to detect FinSpy Mobile.
Other security vendors claim that their products will block any spyware they know about and can detect (regardless of who may have launched it), and Eugene Kaspersky, head of IT security company Kaspersky Lab, stated, "We detect all malware regardless its purpose and origin". Two years after that statement by Eugene Kaspersky in 2012 a description of the technique used by FinFisher to evade Kaspersky protection was published in Part 2 of the relevant blog at Code And Security.
- Nicole Perlroth (August 30, 2012). "Software Meant to Fight Crime Is Used to Spy on Dissidents". The New York Times. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
Jennifer Valentino-Devries (2011-11-21). "Surveillance Company Says It Sent Fake iTunes, Flash Updates". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2011-11-28.
Perhaps the most extensive marketing materials came from Gamma’s FinFisher brand, which says it works by “sending fake software updates for popular software,” from Apple, Adobe and others. The FinFisher documentation included brochures in several languages, as well as videos touting the tools.
Christopher Williams (2011-11-24). "Apple iTunes flaw 'allowed government spying for 3 years'". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2011-11-28. Retrieved 2011-11-28.
A British company called Gamma International marketed hacking software to governments that exploited the vulnerability via a bogus update to iTunes, Apple's media player, which is installed on more than 250 million machines worldwide.
Marcel Rosenbach (2011-11-22). "Firm Sought to Install Spyware Via Faked iTunes Updates". Der Spiegel. Archived from the original on 2011-11-28. Retrieved 2011-11-28.
Apparently, at least according to a video promoting FinFisher, the software uses Apple's popular iTunes in order to load snooping software onto the computers of the intended suspects.
- Marquis-Boire, Morgan (13 March 2013). "You Only Click Twice: FinFisher's Global Proliferation". University of Toronto Citizen Lab. Retrieved 3 August 2014.
John Leyden (2011-09-21). "UK firm denies supplying spyware to Mubarak's secret police: RATs nest found in Egyptian spook HQ". The Register. Archived from the original on 2011-11-28. Retrieved 2011-11-28.
Documents uncovered when the country's security service headquarters were ransacked during the Arab Spring uprising suggest that Egypt had purchased a package called FinFisher to spy on dissidents.
- Kopfstein, Janus (March 10, 2014). "Hackers Without Borders". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
- "American Sues Ethiopian Government for Spyware Infection". Electronic Frontier Foundation. February 18, 2014. Retrieved 2014-08-24.
- "Corporate Enemies: Gamma International", The Enemies of the Internet, Special Edition: Surveillance, Reporters Without Borders, 12 March 2013.
- Vernon Silver (July 25, 2012). "Cyber Attacks on Activists Traced to FinFisher Spyware of Gamma". Bloomberg. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
- "The 2014 FinFisher Leaks were a precursor to both Vault 7 and Panama Papers". wikileaksdecrypted.com. Retrieved 2017-03-27.
- Andre Meister (August 6, 2014). "Gamma FinFisher hacked: 40 GB of internal documents and source code of government malware published". Netzpolitik.org. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
- "Portfolio". FinFisher IT Intrusion. Gamma Group. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
Gamma addresses ongoing developments in the IT Intrusion field with solutions to enhance the capabilities of our clients. Easy to use high-end solutions and techniques complement the intelligence community’s knowhow enabling it to address relevant Intrusion challenges on a tactical level.
- "Portfolio". FinFisher IT Intrusion. Gamma Group. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
The Remote Monitoring and Deployment Solutions are used to access target Systems to give full access to stored information with the ability to take control of target systems' functions to the point of capturing encrypted data and communications. When used in combination with enhanced remote deployment methods, the Government Agencies will have the capability to remotely deploy software on target systems.
- "Portfolio". FinFisher IT Intrusion. Gamma Group. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
The IT Intrusion Training Program includes courses on both, products supplied as well as practical IT Intrusion methods and techniques. This program transfers years of knowledge and experience to endusers, thus maximizing their capabilities in this field.
- "News". Gamma Group. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
- Nicole Perlroth (August 13, 2012). "Elusive FinSpy Spyware Pops Up in 10 Countries" (blog by reporter). The New York Times. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
- Brian Krebs (2011-11-23). "Apple Took 3+ Years to Fix FinFisher Trojan Hole". Krebs on Security. Archived from the original on 2011-11-28. Retrieved 2011-11-28.
I first wrote about this vulnerability for The Washington Post in July 2008, after interviewing Argentinian security researcher Francisco Amato about “Evilgrade,” a devious new penetration testing tool he had developed.
- Coding and Security (2014-09-19). "FinFisher Malware Analysis and Technical Write-up". Coding and Security. Archived from the original on 2016-01-22. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
Detailed analysis of all components of FinFisher malware
- "Restrictions on freedom of communication". shorouknews.com (in Arabic). Sunrise Gateway. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
- Vernon Silver (July 27, 2012). "Gamma Says No Spyware Sold to Bahrain; May Be Stolen Copy". Bloomberg News. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
- Desmukh, Fahad (7 August 2014). "Bahrain Government Hacked Lawyers and Activists with UK Spyware". Bahrain Watch. Retrieved 22 August 2014.
- Andre Meister (16 January 2013). "Secret Government Document Reveals: German Federal Police Plans To Use Gamma FinFisher Spyware". Netzpolitik.org. Retrieved 19 July 2013.
- Note, Recent Case: D.C. Circuit Finds Ethiopia Immune in Hacking Suit, 131 Harv. L. Rev. 1179 (2018).
- Doe v. Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 851 F.3d 7 (D.C. Cir. 2017).
- Nick Hopkins; Jake Morris (15 October 2015). "UK firm's surveillance kit 'used to crush Uganda opposition'". BBC News Online.
- "FinFisher Mobile Spyware Tracking Political Activists", Mathew J. Schwartz, Information Week, 31 August 2012
- "Researchers Find 25 Countries Using Surveillance Software", Nicole Perlroth, The New York Times, 15 March 2013
- "For Their Eyes Only: The Commercialization of Digital Spying", Morgan Marquis-Boire with Bill Marczak, Claudio Guarnieri, and John Scott-Railton, Citizen Lab and Canada Centre for Global Security Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, 1 May 2013
- "Protecting our brand from a global spyware provider", Mozilla Foundation, April 30, 2013
- June, Daniel, "Mozilla Fights Against Spyware Company and its Exploits"
- Sara Yin (August 30, 2012). "Lessons Learnt From FinFisher Mobile Spyware". PC Magazine. Retrieved September 3, 2012.
- Cameron Camp (August 31, 2012). "FinSpy and FinFisher spy on you via your cellphone and PC, for good or evil?". WeLiveSecurity. Retrieved July 25, 2017.
- David Harley (August 31, 2012). "Finfisher and the Ethics of Detection". WeLiveSecurity. Retrieved July 25, 2017.
- Mathew J. Schwartz (August 31, 2012). "FinFisher Mobile Spyware Tracking Political Activists". Information Week. Retrieved September 3, 2012.