A group of researchers at the University of Toronto have found that a cyber-spy program developed for governments is now capable of taking over mobile computing devices and is being used for more than just watching criminals, the Toronto Star reports.
A study published by the U of T Munk School of Global Affairs' Citizen Lab found that the FinFisher spyware program can take control of a number of different mobile devices, ranging from popular operating systems like iOS, Android and BlackBerry to less widespread Symbian and Windows Mobile.
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Developed by U.K.-based Gamma Group, the spyware was marketed as a way for governments to spy on criminals through monitoring calls, text messages WhatsApp messages and emails as well as to capture keystrokes and copy contact lists, PC Mag reports. Arguably the most frightening feature of this spyware, however, is its ability to turn on the device's microphone and record ambient sound. It can also track the smartphone carrier's whereabouts through its GPS.
According to Bloomberg, the search for how and where the software was deployed has been picking up since July, after the malware was used to monitor activists in Bahrain. Remote servers, also known as command and control centres (C&C) have been found in 15 countries worldwide, including Bahrain, United States and Australia.
"This one is really, really bad," said Dennis Portney, president of Security Forensics, Inc. in Chicago to The Star. "The worst part of this story is that it was a legitimate organization that developed this application and the same organization, which is harming the public at large.
"Now that FinFisher is in the public domain, every government the world over should assume that those who intend to seek and destroy or steal and manipulate will be studying the mechanics of how this application was designed and will undoubtedly develop more of its kind."
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While the technology was originally developed to help governments and law enforcement agencies capture criminals, PC Mag reports that advocates are claiming the technology "is being used by oppressive governments to clamp down on activists without criminal records."
Citizen Lab recommends that you take the same precautions against this malware that you would any other: run anti-virus software, keep your system up-to-date with legitimate updates, and only use and run trusted applications and websites. You can read the full report from Citizen Lab here.