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Illegaler Export von Überwachungssoftware Überwachung von Boskampi, lizensiert unter Pixabay License
Freedom in the digital age
Art. 2, 5, 12

Illegal Spyware Exports

Surveillance software by the German company FinFisher is being used in Turkey to spy on opposition figures. The GFF and partners filed a complaint against Munich companies for illegal exports of spyware to Turkey.

Together with Reporters Without Borders (ROG), the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and netzpolitik.org, the GFF filed a criminal complaint against the managing directors of FinFisher GmbH, FinFisher Labs GmbH and Elaman GmbH in July 2019. There is strong evidence that the Munich-based conglomerate sold the spy software FinSpy to the Turkish government without the authorisation of the German government and thus contributed to the surveillance of opposition members and journalists in Turkey. As a result, the business premises of FinFisher GmbH and two other business partners as well as the private residences of the managing directors were searched in October 2020. In March 2022, the public prosecutor's office announced that it had seized the FinFisher Group's company accounts in response to our criminal complaint. FinFisher GmbH and two partner companies then filed for insolvency. Business operations have now ceased. In May 2023, the public prosecutor's office finally brought charges against four responsible persons of the FinFisher Group.

FinFisher GmbH, FinFisher Labs GmbH and Elaman GmbH jointly produce and distribute surveillance software such as FinSpy for state authorities. Once installed on a recipient’s mobile device, FinSpy gives the state almost all-encompassing access. Infiltrated persons can be located at any time, police or secret services can record telephone conversations and chats and read out all mobile phone data. This is a massive encroachment on the privacy rights of those affected. In the summer of 2017, FinSpy appeared on a Turkish website disguised as the mobilization website of the Turkish opposition movement.

No surveillance software for repressive regimes

In 2015, a licensing requirement was introduced throughout Europe for exports of surveillance software to countries outside the EU. In response to parliamentary inquiries, the German government last confirmed on 19 June 2019 that it has not issued an export permit for intrusion software such as FinSpy since the introduction of the licensing requirement. IT analyses show that the software samples found in Turkey in the summer of 2017 are a FinSpy version that was produced after the introduction of the licensing requirement. These are strong indications that the company exported the software illegally despite the existing licensing procedures.

In autocratic regimes, the use of surveillance software by the authorities can have dramatic consequences for those affected. In countries such as Syria and Bahrain, those under surveillance are often threatened with imprisonment and torture. Exports to the Turkish government are also scandalous in view of the continuing repression of opposition members and media representatives and effectively support the government’s human rights violations. After the failed coup on 15 July 2016, more than 50,000 people were arrested; more than 140,000 people were removed from their jobs; more than a hundred newspapers and other media outlets were closed. Turkey is currently the country with the highest number of detained journalists in terms of population.

Software producers are held accountable for the first time

The software manufacturers based in Europe often deny any responsibility. Yet the export of the FinSpy surveillance software to Turkey would be illegal.

The export of the software probably took place between October 2016 and June 2017. At that time, the export was subject to authorisation according to both German and European regulations; an unauthorised export is punishable under the Foreign Trade and Payments Act.

An efficient prosecution of these illegal exports has hardly taken place so far, as the manufacturers circumvent the export requirements through complicated transnational company structures. This makes prosecution more difficult. Thus, FinFisher and Elaman were able to continue their business undisturbed for a long time - until now. In May 2023, the Munich I public prosecutor's office announced that it was bringing charges against four responsible persons of the FinFisher group of companies.

Data protection and privacy are human rights – not only in Germany

The GFF supports a number of cases in which we advocate for data protection and the right to informational self-determination. These cases frequently deal with laws that give German authorities excessive powers of surveillance, such as the new police laws. But also outside Germany, German companies must not become the henchmen of regimes that surveil their population. Where exports – of weapons as well as of spyware – are used with great certainty to violate human rights, the state must act.

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