UK in crackdown on spyware exports to the MidEast

FinSpy tool can remotely intercept computers and mobile phones

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The British government has cracked down on a UK-based company selling spyware technology which can remotely intercept computers and mobile phones and had reportedly been used in Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar.

UK-based Gamma Group, which also has offices in the Middle East, exports a surveillance tool called FinSpy, which can remotely access and take over computer and mobile phone devices.

According to a press release issued by London-based charity Privacy International (PI), the British Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills has now tightened controls on the export of the tool to destinations outside the European Union.

FinSpy has been reportedly been used in Egypt, Turkmenistan, Bahrain, Dubai, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Mongolia and Qatar, according to PI’s release.

"We welcome the government's decision to start controlling exports of FinSpy, and it is certainly a step in the right direction,” said Eric King, head of research at PI.

“However, without swift further action to bring other unethical British companies under the export licensing regime, it's just a sticking plaster on a bullet wound, and there are a number of pressing questions about the circumstances surrounding the government's abrupt volte-face that remain unanswered."

PI said it would continue to push for a comprehensive solution to what it described as “the problem” of British surveillance technologies being exported to non-democratic countries.

Martin J Muench, Gamma's founder, confirmed to the UK’s Observer newspaper the company had demonstrated the software to the Egyptian government, but said it was before the onset of the Arab Spring conflict which led to the removal last year of former president Hosni Mubarak.

"Gamma did not supply any FinFisher products to Egypt that could have been used during the movement of the opposition," Muench was quoted as saying. "Gamma only supplies its products and services to legitimate government organisations," he added.

According to a report by The Guardian, a 2012 report of the UK parliamentary committees on arms export controls (CAEC) said 158 licences for the sale of arms to countries such as Bahrain, Egypt and Libya had been revoked in the wake of the Arab Spring movement.

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