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How the Arab Spring blew the lid off the commercial spyware

And how the US government is screwing the pooch with Wassenaar

Black Hat 2015 When Middle Eastern governments fell in the Arab Spring uprisings, one of the side effects was that hard evidence of dodgy practices by commercial spyware vendors was made public. Unfortunately, the result is putting us all at risk.

Documents uncovered when the Mubarak regime fell showed that the Egyptians had bought commercial spyware from the UK-based firm Gamma International, while in Syria, Blue Coat Systems was found to have been selling deep packet inspection equipment to the government.

The same was true in Libya, where after the fall of the Gaddafi dictatorship, documents were found showing that Amesys – a subsidiary of French conglomerate Groupe Bull – had sold the mad colonel’s government spyware that was tracking Libyan citizens both at home and abroad.

"All of this became evidence of what people knew all along – that there were sales of sophisticated malware that enabled governments that weren't tech savvy to spy on their own citizens and on diasporas abroad," explained security researcher Collin Anderson.

"As a result governments acted. The British government put restrictions on Gamma until they fled the country, the French acted against Amesys, and the US government has now amended the Wassenaar Arrangement to deal with the issue."

The Wassenaar Arrangement is an export control treaty involving 41 countries governing the export of military technology and civilian tech that could be used for offensive purposes. In June, the US government proposed changing the text of the arrangement in light of the Arab Spring findings, Anderson explained.

The problem is that the new language has serious problems. It includes a ban on intrusion software, code that can spot zero-day exploits and use them, and IP surveillance programs, and security researchers are seriously concerned that the overly broad language will chill research.

"Plenty of the tools we use can easily be classified as surveillance tools," said Adriel Desautels, CEO of PEN testers Netragard. "We have customers that ask us to reproduce a hack to see how many computers it can reach and how far we can dig in. The new language is very worrying."

The industry has fought back against the proposals, and the US Department of Commerce has said it will take another look at the language. But the proposed rules have already chilled research efforts.

Katie Moussouris, chief policy officer for vulnerability disclosure specialists HackerOne, said the proposed rules would also harm bug bounty programs, since technically, researchers would be trafficking in zero-day flaws.

"The end result is that we are all going to be made more unsafe by Wassenaar as it stands," she concluded. ®

Updated to add

A Blue Coat spokeswoman has said that an investigation by the company showed that its equipment had been illegally diverted to Syria by a channel partner.

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