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Surveillance company attempting to export spyware out of Switzerland

UPDATE from Privacy International: After Gamma revelations, Switzerland begins to debate export of surveillance tech (4 October 2013)

For some time now, Gamma International has been criticised for exporting dangerous surveillance technologies from the UK to repressive regimes. Now, we are learning that the company is taking its show on the road, as recent reports have said that Gamma is now attempting to export its products, including the spyware FinFisher, out of Switzerland.

With sales premises registered at a site just outside the Swiss capital Bern, Gamma has now applied to the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) for licences to export its products from Switzerland, according to the report in Swiss paper St. Gallar Tagblatt. With the decision reportedly still awaiting approval from the Swiss authorities, Privacy International has sent out letters to over 70 Swiss lawmakers urging them to reject the application, and grasp the opportunity to take international leadership in promoting human rights by stemming the flow of surveillance technology to destinations where it is used for repression.

A terrible track record

The letter, addressed to members of the key committees covering Foreign Affairs and Defence responsible for oversight of Switzerland's exports within the Swiss Federal Assembly, draws attention to Gamma's lengthy record of irresponsible exports and business dealings with authoritarian regimes around the globe. Gamma's track record paints a terrible picture of happily trading and proactively engaging with essentially any government in the world, including those with some of the most repressive and abysmal human rights records in the world.

As we state in our letter, Gamma's invasive malware has been found in:

* pre-Arab Spring Egypt, in the security service files of Hosni Mubarak's regime
* Bahrain, which was used to target pro-democracy activists, including Ala'a Shabbi from the London-based Bahrain Watch
* Ethiopia, which was deployed against political opponents and refugees.
* Malaysia, in the lead up to the 2013 elections
* Turkmenistan, where staff from Gamma conducted multiple visits before offering to provide full installation, technical support, and training.

Volumes of reports from international groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Committee Against Torture, document in vivid detail the extent of human rights abuses in each of these countries - including arbitrary arrest, beatings, electric shocks, 'disappearances,' waterboarding, other forms of torture, and unlawful killings, of journalists, bloggers, civil rights activists, political opponents and pro-democracy campaigners.

Surveillance companies eyeing Switzerland

Switzerland's export controls are governed by two pieces of legislation; the War Material Act, which regulates exports of military goods, and the Goods Control Act, which regulates civilian dual-use items. Although surveillance technology clearly has military application and can contribute significantly to the military and security capabilities of states, it is not usually regarded as military material, meaning that in Switzerland controls over it are less strict and enforcement less stringent. The Swiss Goods Control Act does, however, require that licences be refused if "the activity covered by the application violates international agreements" or if the activity covered by the application violates control measures that are not binding under international law but which are supported by Switzerland". Given Switzerland's international commitments to human rights through various formal agreements and through its membership of various trade control regimes, we believe that authorities have both the sufficient statutory authority and the obligation to act to stop abuse.

And it can't come soon enough. While we are specifically calling on the Swiss authorities to take this opportunity to refuse the export of Gamma's surveillance technology, there is increasing evidence to suggest that surveillance companies are looking to Switzerland as an attractive operational hub for their operations and exports.

Gamma's partner company Elaman, which acts as a retailer for Gamma by offering a range of products at discounted prices, has used Switzerland as part of its operations outside of its base in Germany since 2011. Earlier this month, WikiLeaks published documents allegedly showing Elaman's managing Director making multiple trips to Turkmenistan, where a FinFisher server has been identified by the University of Toronto. Elaman's portfolio of products sweep across the surveillance sector, from providing Body-Worn Microphones to reselling VASTech's Zebra nationwide Monitoring Centre. It also invests heavily in providing training and support to their customers in the majority of their products.

Another Gamma partner, Dreamlab Technologies, has had a base in Bern since 2004. Similar to Gamma, Dreamlab's equipment has been found in countries with abysmal human rights records, such as Oman and Turkmenistan. Its Monitoring Centre, iProxy, monitors communications coming across the internet and has the capability for deployment of Gamma's FinFisher intrusion software. Dreamlab have since distanced themselves from Gamma, blaming the relationship on a former employee, who now appears to have started his own surveillance company based in Switzerland, Nilabs.

Neosoft, which specialises in tactical telecommunications interception equipment, has run its operations from Zurich since 2009 and also currently has an application for an export license up for review by the Swiss export authorities. Neosoft focuses on phone monitoring technology systems that provide active and passive interception across GSM and 3G Networks. The technology works by presenting itself to the mobile phone as a powerful base station, which attracts it to connect through the fake base station. The technology has two settings: tactical-only, focusing on known identities, and random, which intercepts all phones in the vicinity. Once this connection has been made, Neosoft's technology copies the identifying numbers from the phone (IMSI and IMEI). The possession of these numbers acts as a first step towards mobile phone surveillance, where all calls coming and going to the phone can be recorded.

An opportunity to act

Switzerland has a long-standing tradition of peace-building and the promotion of human rights abroad. It should take this opportunity to loudly and clearly reaffirm this position and act as a leader in the international community by upholding its commitment to international human rights. We reminded the Swiss Members of Parliament of their own foreign policy statements which heavily reference corporate social responsibility, and their promotion of international rules protecting victims and particularly vulnerable groups.

If Switzerland allows the export of this type of technology, it sends an unmistakable signal to private companies: It is acceptable to deal with the worst regimes in the world, regardless of the devastating effect it has on their citizens.

Switzerland has an opportunity to be a leader in merging a coherent and consistent human rights policy with its own trade and foreign policy statements. If Swiss authorities approves these licences, after being provided with information on where these products have been used and for what reasons, Switzerland runs the risk of looking (at best) hypocritical. At worst, the Swiss government runs the danger of appearing complicit in how countries such as Turkmenistan and Bahrain use surveillance technology. Mounting evidence appears to show that almost no government is considered too toxic for Gamma International to deal with.

On behalf of the civil rights activists waterboarded in Bahrain, the opponents languishing in Turkmenistan's jails on politically motivated charges, and those journalists and bloggers detained in Ethiopia - we call on Switzerland to do the right thing.

This article was originally published on 17 September 2013.

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