Computers running U.K.-based Gamma Group’s FinSpy surveillance tool, which can remotely take over computers and phones, have been found in 25 countries, according to an updated global scan of the Internet that mapped the locations of servers that control infected machines. Research published last year found what appeared to be FinSpy command servers in at least 15 countries.
The findings, published today by the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs’ Citizen Lab, expand the previously known reach of the product, which has been criticized by human rights advocates as a tool for targeting political dissidents. The increased number reflects the additional months of work by the researchers, and doesn’t necessarily indicate new sales of FinSpy.
FinSpy can be sent to people in spoof e-mails to secretly monitor their computers -- intercepting Skype calls, turning on Web cameras and recording every keystroke. Marketed by Gamma for law enforcement and intelligence use, FinSpy sends its pilfered data back to command servers controlled by government agencies.
The hunt for FinSpy’s global deployment was sparked in July 2012 when Citizen Lab research based on e-mails obtained by Bloomberg News showed activists from the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain were targeted by the software.
Martin J. Muench, managing director of Gamma’s Munich-based unit, Gamma International GmbH, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
He has previously said that because Internet traffic can be made anonymous, the presence of what may appear to be a FinSpy command server in a country doesn’t mean the computer ultimately receiving data is in that nation.
Today’s report also says that discovery of servers in a given country alone isn’t a sufficient indicator that the product is in use by that nation’s agencies. “In some cases, servers were found running on facilities provided by commercial hosting providers that could have been purchased by actors from any country,” according to the report.
Gamma’s Muench has also said that software samples studied by the researchers have been demonstration copies, and not the actual product sold to clients.
Muench has said Gamma complies with the export regulations of the U.K., U.S. and Germany.
The new study found evidence that FinSpy is being used in Vietnam to target smartphones. A piece of malicious software that the researchers identified as FinSpy Mobile, a product meant to take over phones, connected back to a command computer in Hanoi. The sample was also configured to work without an Internet connection by connecting through a mobile device’s text-messaging system to a phone number in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.
The researchers also analyzed a sample of FinSpy software that communicated with a command server in Ethiopia. That sample used pictures of opposition figures as bait for recipients who would unknowingly download the spyware on their machines, the researchers said.
Ethiopian Communications Minister Bereket Simon said in a telephone interview that he had no information about FinSpy. “I cannot tell you what type of instruments we’re going to use or not,” said Simon, who is the government’s spokesman. “I’ve no idea, and even if I did, I wouldn’t talk to you about it.”
Today’s paper was written by a team of four security experts and graduate students who have been tracking FinSpy for the past year.
They are Morgan Marquis-Boire, a San Francisco-based researcher who works at Google Inc. (GOOG:US) and has done the research on his own time; Bill Marczak, a computer science doctoral candidate at the University of California Berkeley; Claudio Guarnieri of Boston-based security risk-assessment company Rapid7; and John Scott-Railton, a doctoral student at the University of California Los Angeles’ Luskin School of Public Affairs.
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