Amnesty International has introduced software to help ordinary citizens find out if governments are monitoring their computer activity. However, new anti-snooping programmer is far from foolproof.
Known as Detekt, the software was designed to counter the increasing use of sophisticated technology by authoritarian regimes to track the online activity and communication of its citizens.
The freely available software, launched in partnership with the Berlin-based civil rights group Digitale Gesellschaft, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International, alerts users to the presence of spyware on their computers.
“This is not a tool for fighting the NSA, which carries out mass surveillance. Instead, it is supposed to help fight against targeted spying that human rights activists and journalists working in authoritarian regimes often face,” Amnesty International’s Nicolas Krameyer told FRANCE 24.
Detekt’s designers said it worked much like ordinary anti-virus software people download and install on their computers. But the programme does not search devices for ordinary viruses.
“[Detekt] scans a computer in order to detect the presence of a wide range of spyware we know exists, and that we know has been sold to some countries for the purpose of cyber-espionage,” said Alexander Sander, a project director at Digitale Gesellschaft.
“We have conducted trials that show the software works, and already detected the presence of spyware on certain computers,” Amnesty’s Krameyer said, while refusing to reveal which countries are currently involved in cyber-monitoring.
Bahrain and Vietnam are often cited as states practicing extensive spying on private citizens, but more democratic countries could also view Detekt with an unwelcoming eye. Australia and Germany have also engaged in similar spying practices, according to Kramayer.
Fighting the spyware industry
Detekt was also conceived as a way to draw attention to a lucrative industry that profits from infringing upon people’s privacy, and does so with hardly any oversight.
Some spyware can be used to listen in on Skype conversations, extract files from hard drives, record microphone use and emails, and take photos using a device’s camera, Amnesty International said.
“It’s mainly North American and European companies that are selling this technology to authoritarian regimes,” Kramayer noted. Estimates put profits from the sale of cyber-surveillance at over 3.2 billion euros ($4 billion) per year globally.
“This is a business that is completely unregulated at the international level, and we hope Detekt will draw attention to the issue,” Kramayer added.
Digitale Gesellschaft’s Sander said that the new anti-snooping software could not neutralise spyware or the companies that create it, only make their task more difficult. He said it would only take firms – with millions of dollars at their disposal – a few weeks to upgrade their systems to bypass Detekt.
Sander hopes the open source character of Detekt will also allow ordinary citizens to tweak and improve the tool.