Amnesty International Launches Anti-Spying Tool to Combat State Snooping

Want to know if a government has been spying on your computer? Amnesty offers a detection tool.


By Tom Jowitt

Human rights campaign group Amnesty International has released software that it says can detect whether computers are infected with surveillance spyware from government agencies.

The Detekt software aims to help activists and journalists (and indeed members of the public) detect whether they are under government surveillance, but experts have questioned whether a human rights group has the technical capability to maintain this detection software.

Government Spying

The Detekt tool is being offered free of charge by Amnesty, as well as other campaign groups including Privacy International, Digitale Gesellschaft and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The tool was developed by security researcher Claudio Guarnieri, who is affiliated with the Citizen Lab.

The software has been released as a "best effort tool" and is only available for Microsoft Windows-based machines. The makers warn that it while it has been effective in previous investigations, it does not offer an ironclad guarantee that a computer is not compromised by the spyware, as it "cannot detect all surveillance software."

Once Detekt has been installed on a computer that has been disconnected from the Internet, it will conduct an "intense scan" and analyze the computer's memory in order to look for traces of the spyware. The tool does not remove any infection or delete any file that it considers suspicious, but specific instructions are provided if the software identifies the presence of any spyware, and it warns the user that their computer has been compromised and is no longer safe for use.

"In addition, companies that develop the spyware will probably react fast to update their products to ensure they avoid detection," Amnesty warned.

This last point in particular is a valid concern that has been highlighted by experts.

The BBC quoted Prof Alan Woodward from the University of Surrey, who advises governments on security issues, when he wondered how easy it would be for Amnesty and its partners to maintain Detekt.

"It's not really their core business," he was quoted as saying. "Are they going to keep updating the software because the spyware variants change daily?"

Prof Woodward also questioned how useful it would be against regimes that used specially written software rather than commercial versions that were well known and documented. "If a technique is known about widely, those regimes will assume it's going to be ineffective and use another approach," he was quoted as saying.

Privacy Fightback?

But despite expert concern, Amnesty remains convinced of the need for such software.

"Governments are increasingly using dangerous and sophisticated technology that allows them to read activists and journalists' private emails and remotely turn on their computer's camera or microphone to secretly record their activities," said Marek Marczynski, Head of Military, Security and Police at Amnesty International. "They use the technology in a cowardly attempt to prevent abuses from being exposed."

"Detekt is a simple tool that will alert activists to such intrusions so they can take action," said Marczynski. "It represents a strike back against governments who are using information obtained through surveillance to arbitrarily detain, illegally arrest and even torture human rights defenders and journalists."

"Detekt is a great tool which can help activists stay safe but ultimately, the only way to prevent these technologies from being used to violate or abuse human rights is to establish and enforce strict controls on their use and trade," said Marczynski.