13 Oct 2014

The activists ‘hacked’ by the government of Bahrain

Special Correspondent and Presenter

They came to the UK to seek refuge – but now exiled Bahraini democracy activists have been alarmed to find their online activities may have been under surveillance by the government of Bahrain.

They arrived here to seek refuge from a government which allegedly tortured them.

Dr Saeed Shehabi, 60, has lived in the UK for more than four decades, after being sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia by Bahraini authorities.

He told Channel 4 News: “I used to think 1984 was a fantasy… but when I saw my computer hacked from miles away, I thought the fantasy has come true.”

Finfisher ‘malware’

He is one of three activists who have been allegedly monitored by malicious software called Finfisher. It is thought the software can be installed onto a person’s computer when they accidently open an email attachment.

My private life has been interfered with in the worst possible way. Dr Saeed Shehabi

It then allows all of their computer activities to be accessed remotely – whether it is emails, Skype conversations or social media passwords. It even enables a laptop’s camera to be remotely switched on, so that video and sound can be recorded from a room where the laptop is being used.

Dr Shehabi said his “private life has been interfered with in the worst possible way” and he is concerned for the safety of Bahraini family and friends who may have communicated with him online.

WikiLeaks releases

Documents published by Wikileaks allegedly show that a British company called Gamma International sold the Finfisher software to the government of Bahrain and provided technical assistance which allowed it to target activists here in the UK.

The human rights group Privacy International has compiled this evidence and filed a criminal complaint with the National Cyber Crime Unit. Privacy International accuses Gamma of providing “practical help to a foreign government who has committed crimes on British soil” under the Misuse of Computers Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

Privacy International says the evidence clearly shows “real time communications between the Bahraini authorities and Gamma” where the Bahraini government attempt to better target activists. The campaign group say they have preserved the forensic evidence on the computers and are now inviting the National Cyber Crime Unit to further investigate.

Channel 4 News has contacted both Gamma International and the government of Bahrain and is awaiting a response.