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Criminal complaint filed against UK software company for Bahraini activists' surveillance

Privacy International argues that the surveillance counts as an "unlawful interception of communications" under UK law
Bahraini activists have been subject to imprisonment and torture (Privacy International)

An anti-surveillance group is bringing a criminal complaint against a software company after it was revealed it had sold software to the Bahraini government that was used in the surveillance of activists in the UK.

Privacy International (PI) made a criminal complaint to the National Cyber Crime Unit of the National Crime Agency, to request investigation of the unlawful surveillance of three Bahraini activists living in the UK using technology previously produced by a software company called Gamma International Andover, Hampshire, but is produced by a firm based in Germany.

The technology, a malware programme called FinFisher, allows, when downloaded on to a smart phone or computer, a user “full access to a target’s infected device and everything contained within it, even enabling them to turn on functions such as cameras and microphones,” according to PI.

A WikiLeaks cable released in August 2014 revealed a number of internal Gamma documents showing the company was aware that its technology was being used to target pro-democracy activists both in Bahrain and abroad.

The three activists lodging the complaint, Moosa Abd-Ali Ali, Jaafar Al Hasabi and Saeed Al-Shehabi, have all lived in the UK for many years after facing arrest and torture in their native Bahrain, after campaigning for political reforms and greater representation of Shiites in public life.

“To find out I was not even safe in the UK made me very upset,” said Hasabi, speaking at a press conference on Monday.

“Even though I have [UK] citizenship, I feel not safe. It is wrong for the Bahrain government to be able to hack into computers from overseas and I think it is wrong for a British company to help them do that.”

The complaint is being filed in conjunction with the solicitors Bhatt Murphy and argues that the targeting of the activists qualifies as “an unlawful interception of communications under section 1 of the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.”

“For too long companies like Gamma have been enabling repressive states' unlawful conduct, but then seeking to suggest that they bear no responsibility for the products that they supply,” said Adriana Edmeades, Legal Officer for Privacy International.

“We think it’s time that companies like Gamma, which earn a significant amount of money from providing pernicious technologies to states which are known to torture and repress, are made to face the consequences of their doing so." 

Saeed Al-Shehabi, a longtime Bahraini opposition activist, described the first time he had an indication his computer had been tampered with.

“About 2 years ago or 3 years ago, one of my colleagues, a former MP, called me and said ‘why did you send me pornographic pictures?’ I said ‘I never sent you anything!’ Then another person called me and said your email has been hacked into and you are sending these images.

“I never knew that this would be part of the software that would be planted in my computer,” he said.

Speaking to Middle East Eye, he said events like this signified how important British influence was in Bahrain.

“I think the British government must be serious, must change its policies with Bahrain,” he said.

“They have been ruling Bahrain for so long, protecting them internationally.”

He said the Khalifa family, who have ruled Bahrain since independence, were kept in power because of the “support of the British.”

“It’s not in the interest of the British people to continue to have an alliance with an absolute dictatorship.”

Gamma executive Martin J. Muench has previously stated that FinFisher is a tool for monitoring criminals and that it was only sold to governments in order to reduce the abuse risk.

He also denied that the company had sold the FinFisher malware to Bahrain and suggested it might be stolen though WikiLeaks' evidence would suggest otherwise.

Earlier this year PI made a similar complaint about an Ethiopian activist who had allegedly been the subject of surveillance.

“On 28 February 2014, we received an allegation that a man in Islington had had his computer accessed without authorisation,” said the London Metropolitan police in response to the allegations.

“This matter is currently under investigation by Islington CID.”

MEE contacted the UK Foreign Office asking for a comment, but received no response.

Tensions have been high in Bahrain since the beginning of pro-democracy protests in 2011.

Though demonstrators have repeatedly stressed they want democracy and human rights, the Bahraini government has accused them of being spies and agitators supported by Shiite Iran.

This is in part due to the country’s sectarian division, with a minority Sunni administration ruling over a majority Shiite population.

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