Human rights groups hope email evidence can force review of export controls on surveillance equipment
Spy technology from a UK-based company was used to target a British citizen who became a leading light in Bahrain's Arab spring, according to documents filed in the high court.
The witness statement of Dr Ala'a Shehabi is seen by human rights groups as crucial in their attempt to force the government to examine the export of surveillance equipment.They want to secure a judicial review of the government's alleged failure to provide them with information on what action it is taking to establish whether the sale of the technology to repressive regimes is in breach of export-licence controls.
Shehabi, who studed at Imperial College London, and has both Bahraini and British citizenship, is one of the founding members of Bahrain Watch, set up following the country's security crackdown in February 2011. Her father is the leader of the Bahrain Freedom Movement. Following the crackdown her husband was arrested and jailed having, she claims, been beaten. He was freed last year. Shehabi herself was arrested in April 2012, during the Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain. She was later released.
According to her witness statement, a few weeks after her arrest Shehabi received a series of emails, the first purportedly from Kahil Marzou who was the deputy head of Bahrain's main opposition party, including one containing a virus. Other emails that claimed to be from an Al Jazeera journalist were also infected. Research found that the emails contained a product called FinSpy, distributed by a British company, Gamma International.
The witness statement claims that when a person's computer is infected with FinSpy, "it allows access to emails, social media messaging, and Skype calls, as well as copying the files saved on the hard disk. These products also enable whoever is doing the targeting to commandeer and remotely operate microphones and cameras on computers and mobile phones."
Shehabi, who has been forced to relocate to Britain, states: "I have real concerns about the Bahrainian regime having effective unfettered access to my computer, reading my emails and monitoring my calls. Not only is this a gross invasion of my privacy, I am concerned that it could put in danger from the Bahraini authorities myself, my family members and other activists."
Last November, the campaign group Privacy International provided a dossier of evidence against Gamma International to HM Revenue and Customs, urging it to investigate whether there had been any breach of the export control regime.
According to Privacy International, Gamma's technology has been deployed by secret police in 25 countries, many with a history of human rights abuses. The campaign group warns: "This is part of a growing global trend, where human rights defenders, political dissidents and other vulnerable groups around the world are being targeted by increasingly sophisticated state surveillance."
Gamma's managing director in Germany, Martin J Muench, did not respond to requests for comment. However, in the past, he has said that Gamma co-operates with UK, US and German export controls, adding: "It appears that during a demonstration one of our products was stolen and has been used elsewhere."
Shehabi's witness statement provides vivid testimony of the effects she claims the secret surveillance of her computer system has had on her mental health. "I found it very disturbing that an attempt was being made to spy on me through this medium," she explains. "It upset me a lot, scared me and made me feel quite paranoid. I am very concerned that it appears that a product of a British company is being exported in breach of export controls to be used to attempt to spy on pro-democracy activists such as myself."
Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, said the government needed to come clean on whether it was permitting surveillance technology to be exported.
"It is critical we understand what if anything it is doing to hold Gamma to account," King said.