Dr Ala'a Shehabi
Dr Ala'a ShehabiIBT

A British citizen at the forefront of the Bahraini 2011 uprising who was allegedly targeted by spy technology from a UK-based company has urged the British government to be held accountable for alleged violation of export laws.

In a case that highlights the danger of digital surveillance post-NSA scandal and Snowden revelations, British-born economics lecturer Dr Ala'a Shehabi says she was targeted by FinFisher, a malicious software distributed by UK-based company Gamma International.

Shehabi, who has a PhD from Imperial College in London and is one of the founding members of Bahrain Watch monitoring group, was at the forefront of the Bahrain's pro-democracy uprising that was violently crushed in 2011 by the al-Khalifa regime.

Privacy International, a British rights group that defends and promotes the right to privacy across the world, asked repeatedly the HM Revenue & Customs on behalf of Shehabi whether it was investigating Gamma International for violation of exports laws. But the law enforcement body always refused to release any information.

A British court on Monday ruled that the HM Revenue & Customs acted unlawfully and irrationally in refusing to disclose information on the status of any criminal proceedings into possible illegal export of FinFisher.

"Today's verdict is a damning one," Shehabi told IBT UK. "The UK government in general should be held responsible for any form of use of dual-use exports that are knowingly sent to governments who then will use them to violently repress human rights and to target activists who are simply calling for democracy."

After the crackdown on pro-democracy activists, Shehabi's husband was arrested and jailed. He was freed last year. Shehabi was also arrested in April 2012 during the Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain and later released.

The activist said that after her arrest she received a series of emails from purported activists and journalists that were infected with the spyware product FinSpy.

"Like any normal user of the internet, I'm used to receiving junk email, spyware, pop up windows but the stuff I received in 2012 was particularly suspicious, dressed-up of emails which would interest me. Emails from other activists, political leaders to entice me to open attachments. I immediately sent to digital surveillance exports I knew of."

An investigation by Bloomberg uncovered that the signature of Gamma International which has a base in Andover in the UK as well as a base in Germany.

Gamma International's FinFisher is a sophisticated government spying software used by many countries such as Bahrain, Ethiopia, Egypt and Turkmenistan to monitor dissidents, journalists and human rights activists. It is sold as a "governmental IT intrusion and remote monitoring solutions" and operates in at least 36 countries according to the latest Citizen Lab report.

Once the user installs the spyware, "victims' computers and mobile devices can be taken over, the cameras and microphones remotely switched on, emails, instant messengers and voice calls (including Skype) monitored, and locations tracked".

"Even though I knew the Bahraini government would be targeting me because of my involvement in the pro-democracy movement I was very surprised it was a British company that was supplying this," Shehabi said.

Along with Privacy International, Shehabi campaigned to the HM Revenue & Customs to pressure them to disclose information whether they were considering a probe against Gamma. But HMRC said it was "statutorily barred from releasing information to victims or complaints".

After a High Court judicial review, Justice Green found that HMRC committed a serious error in not providing information about whether it was investigating Gamma International. The court described the actions of HMRC as irrational and inconsistent with the legislation.

It pointed out that "the rationale which justifies the provision of information by HMRC to the press applies in large measure to disclose of information to pressure groups and other NGOs".

"This should be a black and white case," said Shehabi. "Has the government taken any steps or actions to stop Gamma from supplying the Bahraini regime with spyware? The answer we believe is to be no because we haven't been provided with the information that can clarify that."

Bahraini Activist Hails Ruling on HMRC Over Spyware ExportIBTimes UK