Photo Gallery: Spying with German Technology

Foto: AP

The Transparent State Enemy Western Surveillance Technology in the Hands of Despots

German companies play an important role in the market for surveillance technology used by Arab despots to spy on their people. In this industry worth billions, the companies also earn their money using methods that have been outlawed in their home country.

He lives in Bahrain, the small island nation in the Persian Gulf. He is an English teacher, married and the father of a nine-year-old son. And he is also the chairman of a unique club. To become a member, one must have been tortured by the country's government.

Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar says that he has had to endure torture six times in the last 17 years. He has spoken about his ordeals before both the British House of Commons and representatives of the United Nations.

But for the last eight months, Khanjar has been in hiding. The only way he can be contacted is through human rights organizations who know how to reach him via the Internet telephone service Skype.

The screen remains black during the first phone call. All that can be heard is the voice of a reserved, polite man. Once he has built up enough trust, a bare wall comes into view with a window to the left of it, covered with a flowered curtain. Khanjar sits in front of the curtain, wearing a white shirt, headphones and a microphone. He smiles apologetically and says: "Sorry about my haircut. I have to do it myself, and I don't have a mirror."

Khanjar has been living in this room for more than half a year. He can take five steps in one direction and four in the other, which he does regularly for a quarter of an hour at a time. He wants to keep himself fit, not knowing what the future has in store for him, or what new ordeals he might face.

The room belongs to an acquaintance who has made it available to Khanjar as a refuge. Khanjar is considered an enemy of the government and was arrested for planning to overthrow the regime. In February, after the Arab Spring had begun, the king of Bahrain suspended his sentence, probably to placate the protesters in his realm. Khanjar addressed the protesters. Soon afterwards, he learned that he was about to be arrested again and went into hiding. He was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison.

German Technology

Khanjar says that there are dozens like him, people who have disappeared and were tortured to extract information. They were also confronted during interrogation with incriminating material: transcripts of their telephone conversations, copies of their emails and comments made in Internet chat rooms.

Surveillance technology produced in the West, including Germany, plays a key role in the power struggle between Arab despots and their protesting subjects. The Western software helps those in power spy on and persecute members of the opposition. It is a market worth billions, and the methods employed are often illegal in Germany.

Nevertheless, there are about two dozen such surveillance companies in Germany, often specialized service providers with names like Gamma International, Syborg and Utimaco. They keep a low profile and tend to respond to inquiries by pointing out that they are bound by strict confidentiality agreements. The industry, which promises total transparency to its customers in foreign governments and agencies, tries to keep its own activities as shielded from outside scrutiny as possible.

The buyers of digital surveillance technology are often from undemocratic countries, like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, as well as Bahrain, where a German-Finnish company, Nokia Siemens Networks, sold its products. It was a joint subsidiary of two telecommunications giants, Nokia and Siemens, and is now owned by an investment fund registered in Guernsey, a tax haven in the English Channel. The fund, called Perusa, is managed by secretive businesspeople in Munich.

Nokia Siemens was already the subject of criticism in 2009, because of its dealings with Iran. When the fund took over the company that year, it was given a new name: Trovicor.

This is a special week for companies like Trovicor. The ISS World Asia Pacific conference, a trade show for technically adept intelligence agents, investigators and police detectives, began in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday. It is a marketplace for suppliers and buyers of surveillance technology -- and is often visited by officials from authoritarian countries.

Total Surveillance

The Cyber Warfare Europe conference, held in Berlin in September, was another key event for the intelligence and surveillance community. A former officer with the US Marines conducted the event in a windowless conference room at the Marriott Hotel.

A new, alarming attempt to create total surveillance at the expense of freedom was on display in Berlin. Functionality of the products is a priority, but so too is marketability. They are sold to any ruler who can afford it, no matter who he declares to be an enemy of the state and how he treats such so-called enemies. The attendees in Berlin seemed enthusiastic about what they were seeing, which included the latest tools for hacking into the suspects' computers. The providers of the software promise that they can even provide interested third parties with access to encrypted emails and telephone conversations.

Representatives of the Gamma Group, a conglomerate that owns two companies headquartered in a Munich office building, had their own booth at Cyber Warfare Europe. Gamma describes itself as a leader in the field of cyber surveillance. The current brochure on its flagship product, "FinFisher," reads like an investigator's wish list -- and a nightmare for civil rights activists. The 41-page brochure describes spy software for all kinds of devices and electronic eavesdropping situations.

Gamma offers a product, for example, known as an "active password sniffer," which is supposedly capable of hacking into password-protected data transmissions in online banking (SSL), as well as private, encrypted WLANs. A product called "FinSpy" is designed to facilitate live surveillance through webcams and microphones, download files without being detected, and even monitor Skype conversations and chats.

In its marketing videos, Gamma promises "full access to target systems," that is, the computers and mobile phones of those to be spied on. Of course criminals, as well as real or alleged regime opponents, should not be aware that any of this is taking place. The spy programs are installed on their computers through such tools as "fake software updates."

'Positive Feedback'

According to the videos, unsuspecting users download the spyware onto their devices when they update their Apple iTunes program or BlackBerry software. Once a BlackBerry, for example, has been infected, the originators of the "FinSpy Mobile" spyware can not only listen in on conversations and read text messages, but can also view contacts, photos, calendar entries and other files stored on the device -- no matter where in the world the device is being used at any given moment. Apple has just closed the security loophole  that was being used for this purpose with a real iTunes update.

One of the presenters at the Berlin security conference was a slender Italian with the Milan firm Hacking Team, one of Gamma's main competitors. He described in detail how to hack into encrypted messages. Representatives from the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Indonesia, all countries with democratic deficits, listened with great interest.

The Italian explained that the encryption is not the place to start, because it is impenetrable, even by a supercomputer. The weak point, he told his audience, are the users. He then showed a video and proudly demonstrated how perfectly the surveillance works as soon the spyware is installed. According to the Italian, all it takes is the push of a button for investigators and other customers to listen in on a Skype conversation being conducted by their targets. The system also allows them to read emails or text messages.

The software is "in use with a few thousand target individuals on five continents," the man from Hacking Team said, noting that his company had achieved "high success rates" and received "a lot of positive feedback." His words were received with warm applause.

The Fine Line between Oppression and Crime Fighting

Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar knows full well the possibilities that the international surveillance industry offers its customers. One day, when he was in prison in Bahrain, he was taken to a room with a table and a chair in it. Both were screwed to the floor and placed so closely together that it was very difficult to sit down. Khanjar was ordered to sit down and then stand up again. But because of the narrow space between the table and chair, he could not stand up completely, and it became painful after only a few minutes. He was forced to stand in that position for a long time.

While Khanjar was standing, his torturer asked him to provide the names and addresses of enemies of the state. Khanjar replied that he did not associate with enemies of the state.

He was then suspended from a ceiling beam, with his wrists and ankles tied together.

A few days later, Khanjar was taken from his cell to an interrogation room once again, where he was made to sit down at a table facing a uniformed man with a few sheets of paper in his hand. They were verbatim transcripts of conversations Khanjar had had on his mobile phone before he was arrested in Bahrain. His torturers were only able to obtain the transcripts because of the Western surveillance technology in use at the time. The Bloomberg news agency was the first to report that during the time period in question, Bahrain was using technology produced by Nokia Siemens Networks, now Trovicor.

People like Khanjar are not completely without allies. As Arab government agencies and intelligence services upgrade their technology, a growing number of Western activists are providing support and assistance to the opposition. One of them is Jacob Appelbaum.

An Advocate for the Opposition

Appelbaum, an American, keeps tabs on the surveillance industry and has been involved in the fight against censorship on the Internet for years. He lives in the US state of Washington, but he is often on the road, helping Internet activists and bloggers worldwide remain anonymous on the Web. Appelbaum is a developer with the Tor project, software that is designed to enable people to surf the Web anonymously in times of growing surveillance. To do this, the software encrypts data and pushes it through various computers that are part of the Tor network.

In October, Appelbaum attended a conference in Tunis organized by Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation and a Tunisian civil rights organization. Most of the invited attendees were bloggers from the Arab world. Appelbaum and a hacker friend gave a presentation on privacy and security in the use of mobile phones. His conclusion was simple. Privacy and security cannot exist together, Appelbaum said. His listeners glanced uneasily at their smart phones.

Appelbaum compares surveillance companies that sell their products to despots with companies in the Third Reich that supported the Nazis with modern technology. "Surveillance systems are weapons that are used to commit human rights violations," he says. According to Appelbaum, the examples of Egypt, Syria and Tunisia clearly illustrate "that the trade in spyware programs must be uncovered and stopped."

But business for companies like Trovicor, Gamma, Hacking Team and others is booming. TeleStrategies, the organizer of the ISS conferences, estimates annual global sales in the industry at $5 billion (€3.7 billion).

Many suppliers are quick to point out that their products are intended only for legal wire-tapping and skimming, or what they call "lawful interception." But when activists raided an office of the Egyptian intelligence service in Cairo, they discovered a file labeled "FinFisher." It contained a detailed bid that included various FinFisher applications sold by the Gamma Group. According to the documents, the system was priced at about €300,000. In other documents, analysts with Egyptian intelligence noted that they were particularly impressed with the ability to listen in on Skype conversations. Gamma's British subsidiary denied ever having supplied FinFisher products to Egypt.


The Gamma Group, which had not commented on the matter by Friday evening, isn't the only company that suddenly faces embarrassing questions as a result of the upheavals in the Arab world. According to MDR, a German public broadcasting network, bidding documents compiled by Syborg, a company located in the southwestern German state of Saarland, were found in Libya. Syborg manager Robert Lander explains that because of confidentiality requirements, his company "generally provides no information about customers, potential customers or solutions we offer." But, he added, Syborg has "not done any business with or in Libya to date."

It is thought that German surveillance technology has alsobeen delivered to Syria , as part of a surveillance system made by the Italian firm Area. For years, the Italians have used specialized software by the German firm Utimaco in their systems. But as Utimaco senior executive Malte Pollmann insists, Area only built a test version, and the Italians have just cancelled the entire project. "Our software was not used," says Pollmann.

Blue Coat, a US company, was also quick to issue denials after Internet activists revealed that Syrian authorities were filtering and censoring the Internet with the help of Blue Coat hardware. After initially declaring that it had not delivered anything to Syria, the company soon sheepishly admitted that Blue Coat technology was indeed being used. It must have been a shipment that was in fact bound for Iraq, a Blue Coat spokesman said.

Other industry representatives defend themselves just as adamantly, including Jerry Lucas, the organizer of the ISS conferences. He told the British newspaper The Guardian that it is not the responsibility of vendors to divide governments into good and bad. "we're not politicians … we're a for-profit company," Lucas said.

Trovicor officials were only willing to state that they could not publicly discuss customers and the details of agreements. But Christian Hollenberg of Perusa says that there is plenty of evidence on the effectiveness of surveillance techniques in the prevention of serious and very serious crime. Isn't it desirable, Hollenberg asks, to be able to more effectively fight off the attacks of Somali pirates on German commercial ships? And isn't it desirable that German soldiers in Afghanistan are better protected against attacks by jihadists?

A More Thoughtful Impression

Employees of a company like Trovicor "also go to work with the knowledge that they have played a part in preventing suffering," says Hollenberg. He adds that this has to be weighed against "potential unwanted consequences, especially in semi-democratic or undemocratic countries."

Hollenberg also points out that it's important to know "that electronic communication, especially for government offices, is no longer inaccessible anywhere in the world." For this reason, Hollenberg advises, citizens "in semi-democratic or undemocratic countries should refrain for their own safety from using such forms of communication for activities that could bring them into conflict with a regime in power."

There are some industry representatives who make a more thoughtful impression. After the Syria dealings of his partner Area were exposed, Utimaco executive Pollmann temporarily suspended relations with the company. He is now trying to identify the customers where Utimaco products have ended up in the last 15 years. "Dammit," he says, "I have no interest in our technology being used in Syria." But he also believes that suspending the sale of telecommunications technology to the Middle East is "wrong, because this technology, as the movements there have shown, also contains strong elements that promote freedom."

It is a twisted situation, but at its core it revolves around the question of what is more important, security or freedom, and where exactly the line should be drawn. This question isn't just important when it comes to the export of computer programs that can be used as weapons. It is also important and highly controversial in Germany, as police use of a government Trojan horse made by the firm Digitask has shown. And it isn't easy to answer, because both sides -- the intelligence and the civil rights communities alike -- have valid arguments.

Total monitoring leads to a police state, but total freedom from surveillance makes it more difficult for the government to fight crime effectively. Citizens want their privacy, while victims want to see perpetrators brought to justice.

In Bahrain, Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar acknowledges all of these aspects, including the horrifying technical possibilities and the conflicting arguments. He is sitting in his room, in front of the flowered curtain, trying to form an opinion. For a moment, he seems to be at a loss. But then he says that he is betting on politics and the civilization of power. He has no other option.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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