For their eyes only

Michaela Whitton reveals how the largely unregulated industry of private surveillance companies exports technology to authoritarian regimes to target pro-democracy activists and crush dissent.
computer eye

Justin Hall under a Creative Commons Licence

London-based journalist Saeed Al-Shehabi’s computer files kept disappearing, his device switched off by itself and sent unauthorized emails to his contacts. When friends began calling to ask what was happening, he assumed he had a virus. He was completely unaware that his PC had become a live bugging device.

One of a number of Bahraini pro-democracy activists to be granted asylum in Britain, Shehabi is a leading figure in the Bahrain Freedom Movement. Sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for his activism, he has been in exile since 1971.

Despite paying a hefty price for his convictions, they remain unshakeable.

‘When you live under tyranny and dictatorship, you die for your decisions. You either choose a slow death and non-existence, or you survive – even if you are tortured, for standing up to the dictatorship,’ he said.

Forgotten and forsaken

Decades of struggle for political reform in Bahrain propelled people to the streets in 2011. A series of largely peaceful demonstrations was brutally suppressed by the authorities. Those unable to move fast enough were beaten with rifle butts. Hundreds were shot and teargassed and ambulances were prevented from attending the carnage.

‘When you live under tyranny and dictatorship, you die for your decisions. You either choose a slow death and non-existence, or you survive – even if you are tortured’

Merciless crackdowns by a regime that refuses to tolerate dissent continue unabated. Indiscriminate use of teargas has led to the maiming, blinding and deaths of protesters. Doctors report increased miscarriages in areas where the toxic agent is regularly used. Thousands of dissidents, including medical staff and human rights lawyers, languish behind bars.

A recent Human Rights Watch report revealed that the regime is as bloody as ever and describes a ‘culture of impunity’ among Bahrain’s security forces in its failure to combat torture techniques used on detainees.

Recent images of UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond and Bahrain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheik Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa laying a cornerstone for Britain’s new naval base in Bahrain dismayed human rights advocates. Images of the two laughing ministers displayed utter contempt for torture victims of a regime whose atrocities Britain not only turns a blind eye to, but actively enables.

Woeful declarations by the Foreign Affairs Committee that Bahrain should have been designated ‘a country of concern’ fell on deaf ears. The regime remains a prime target for arms sales and the coalition government issued arms licences worth £37 million ($55 million) to the Gulf state. More shoulder-rubbing between Britain and the regime is on the cards at Bahrain’s International Airshow in January.

Saeed Al-Shehabi described the concept of national dialogue in Bahrain as ‘I speak, you listen’, and claims the British stance of sheltering Gulf dictators is not helping.

‘They must get rid of the idea that these policies will bring them money. They should adhere to the fact that democracy is good. If it’s good for Britain, it’s good for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Human rights and democracy should be universal,’ he declared.

A chilling toolkit

Britain should have been a refuge for Shehabi’s family, but proof that the long arm of the regime had reached well beyond its own turf was confirmed in a massive data leak of files from surveillance industry giant Gamma International. Analysed by Bahrain Watch, the information revealed that the Anglo-German company not only sold surveillance equipment to the Bahraini authorities – but actively worked with them in targeting and monitoring the activists on British soil.

Shehabi remains in no doubt as to why he was targeted: ‘They know I am one of the actors. I inspire others to resist and don’t give up easily.’

The Bahraini government used the commercial spyware technology FinFisher to monitor Shehabi’s online life. Operating like a virus, the malicious tool hijacks the infected victim’s operating system and gives remote access to an agent. The computer or smartphone essentially becomes a bugging device as the software silently intercepts communications. The camera and microphone can be activated, contacts infiltrated, messages read and screenshots taken. Files can be extracted, Skype calls monitored and a heat map tracks cursor behaviour.

‘If democracy is good for Britain, it’s good for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Human rights and democracy should be universal’

A disturbing new report by Privacy International has uncovered further evidence of the exporting of FinFisher to authoritarian regimes to be used as part of brutal crackdowns. The malware was part of the chilling toolkit employed by the Ugandan authorities to crush civil disobedience by tracking and blackmailing opposition members and activists.

A Privacy International spokesperson said: ‘We were showing that bad things were happening to activists, but it was difficult to prove the causality. There were many anecdotal cases based on who was being targeted, but Uganda proved it.’

In a globalized and largely unregulated industry, FinFisher is one of a number of products marketed for policing and investigation of crime. Their command and control centres have been found in 40 countries throughout the world. Gamma International has said it does not assist government agencies in the misuse of its products and suggested the Gulf Kingdom must have used a stolen copy.

Privacy International has filed a criminal complaint to the National Cyber Crime Unit, claiming the actions of the Bahraini authorities qualify as unlawful interception of communications under the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Government tools

Clara Usiskin is the Director of Justice Forum, a research and advocacy NGO specializing in issues of national security and human rights.

‘Dissent is a crucial part of a functioning democracy. In the case of Bahrain, FinFisher was a government tool used to stop the revolution spreading by stopping communications and breaking down networks. Ultimately, there wasn’t a revolution in Bahrain,’ she said.

Describing FinFisher as just one tool in the armoury of governments, she said the public don’t fully appreciate the likely impact the tools can have on the development of democracy around the world. ‘If people’s doors were being broken down, it would be a scandal!’ she added.

Usiskin is conducting research to assess the psycho-social impact of surveillance on exiled human rights defenders and has found the intrusive measures can trigger existing post-traumatic stress disorder. Insistent there must be robust systems of oversight, particularly in the context of human rights and protection of refugees, she is adamant that the UK should be a haven from abuse and other countries must not be able to threaten and harass on British territory.

‘It’s a double whammy; their sense of safety is shattered,’ she said. ‘It’s a new scenario and no-one could have predicted it.’

Many would agree there are some circumstances where the police and national security services should monitor or violate the privacy of individuals who pose a threat to others. Usiskin claimed that while operational reality dictates most of these decisions won’t be made in public, citizens of a democracy should know in what circumstances things will be kept secret: ‘We need to know who decides and how decisions are made, who is involved in decision making and what mechanisms of oversight are in place to ensure privacy violations only occur when necessary. When mistakes are made, which they inevitably will be, they need to be addressed swiftly.’

Left wondering why the British government hasn’t challenged the Bahraini authorities on his shadowy surveillance ordeal, Saeed Al-Shehabi described how the border-crossing invasion has affected him.

‘I am scared, of course. Everything I write, I am scared. I’m worried about writing a wrong word by mistake. When you are older you are not as strong as you used to be. Once you lose your privacy – that’s it. No-one can live without privacy.’