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Pakistan Courts to Hear Lawsuit Against Finfisher Spy Software

by Rozali TelbisCorpWatch Blog
May 12th, 2014

Campaign poster from Bytes for All, Pakistan

A Pakistani court has set a June 5 court date to hear a lawsuit from ‘Bytes for All’ - a digital rights group - for the alleged use of FinFisher spy software by the Pakistani government. The software is manufactured by Gamma International, an Anglo-German company.

FinFisher software is sold exclusively to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The software can install malware on a target’s computer and mobile devices without their knowledge to monitor email, chats, and even turn on webcams and microphones. The interceptor can also steal passwords, online account information, break encryption and gain access to wireless networks.

Bytes for All (B4A), submitted a petition to Lahore High Court last May after Citizen Lab, a Canadian research organization, confirmed the presence of FinFisher in 36 countries worldwide including Pakistan where the server was found on a network owned by Pakistan Telecommunications Company (PTA). The lawsuit was filed against the PTA as well as the Pakistani Ministry of Interior.

"Respondents have no[t] just violated the privacy rights of the people of Pakistan but have also abused this power to manipulate and blackmail people, creating dossiers and using sensitive information about these people by threatening them," Bytes for All wrote in the lawsuit. "All technology experts agree that this kind of 'big brother' monitoring - which harks back to George Orwell’s classic 1984 - will eventually bring the information high way in Pakistan to a complete standstill."

At the first court hearing on May 13, 2013, the court ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to carry out a complete inquiry into FinFisher and present it before the court on June 24, 2013.

On October 13, 2013 Bytes for All initiated a contempt charge against the government for not reporting back to the court on time. Last month the judge finally set a June 5 hearing date.

The lawsuit comes at a time when the Pakistani government has come under fire for several violations of digital rights – the state has blocked YouTube in an attempt to deny access to the controversial “Innocence of Muslims” video, the arbitrary use of an Internet “kill switch” to turn off mobile services, and the “Fair Trial Act” which allows the state to intercept private communications in order to track suspected terrorists.

“Censorship, surveillance, curbs on expression and invasion of privacy in the digital spaces is rampant in my country now," Shahzad Ahmad, director of Bytes for All, told Index on Censorship at a ceremony on March 20 where he was presented with an award for his work fighting Internet censorship and surveillance. "We see it as our role to educate and raise awareness among people of their digital rights. We have to continue to provide the knowledge and language that can empower everyone to participate in this dialogue."

Gamma International first came to public attention in 2011 when Egyptian human rights activists discovered FinFisher software inside former President Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence headquarters.

In April 2013, Citizen Lab revealed that FinFisher was being used in a number of countries where human rights violations are prevalent, such as Bahrain, Mexico and Turkmenistan.

Gamma’s sale of surveillance software has also been the subject of a formal complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in early February of last year. The complaint was filed by European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights and Privacy International, among other organizations, for failure to respect internationally recognized human rights, including Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Surveillance abuses by government agencies have drawn widespread condemnation following the revelations of Edward Snowden last June. Last month, a number of international human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Privacy International and Reporters Without Borders, launched the Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports (CAUSE).

“We have seen the devastating impact these technologies have on the lives of individuals and the functioning of civil society groups. Inaction will further embolden blatantly irresponsible surveillance traders and security agencies, thus normalizing arbitrary state surveillance," said Wenzel Michalski, director of Human Rights Watch Germany in a press release to mark the launch of the coalition. “We urge governments to come together and take responsible action fast."