Information Warfare: Malware For Dictators

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August 16, 2012: For the last five years a British firm (Gamma International) has supplied a spyware program (FinFisher) to police departments and governments. FinFisher, once placed (usually without the users knowledge) on a PC, gives the distant FinFisher controller the ability to record everything the PC does, in addition to sending files back to the controller. In other words, FinFisher allows police to "tap" a PC the same way they tap a phone. In both cases police usually have to get a court order. But in some nations the police don't need a court order. This upsets a growing number of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) who have discovered that FinFisher is sometimes used by dictatorships and other governments unpopular with many NGOs. Stuff like FinFisher is similar to the malware criminals are constantly using to infiltrate PCs and steal stuff.

Some governments develop their own spyware and plant it on the PCs of criminals or foreign enemies. But for those governments who cannot, or will not, develop their own there's FinFisher. While Gamma only sells their spyware to police and governments, some nations have a lot of corrupt officials and copies of FinFisher have ended up in the hands of criminals. Gamma can, to a certain extent, hunt down and disable illegal users of FinFisher but not before the illegal users get what they are looking for.

Dual use (for legal and illegal eavesdropping) software is becoming more of an issue as more dictatorships legally purchase Internet monitoring and censoring software and use it to control Internet use in their country and monitor what locals are doing on the net. This dual use software was originally developed for large corporations eager to make sure their employees did not do anything illegal or inappropriate on the Internet. While this could get offending employees fired, in many countries saying the wrong thing on the Internet can get you killed.

NGOs have taken the lead in trying to protect people from spyware controlled by evil governments. Problems arise when there are major disagreements over who is evil and who isn't. This is all because NGOs have increasingly become more concerned with media and politics than taking care of their traditional charitable chores.

NGOs are, for the most part, charitable organizations that take money from individuals, organizations, and governments and use it for charitable work in foreign countries. The Red Cross is one of the oldest and best known NGO (dating back to the 19th century), although the Catholic Church had been doing similar work for centuries. In the mid-20th century the UN (and its many aid agencies) became the largest NGO. In the late 20th century the number of NGOs grew explosively. Now there are thousands of them, providing work for hundreds of thousands of people. The NGO elite are well educated people from Western countries that solicit donations, or go off to disaster areas and apply money, equipment, and supplies to alleviate some natural or man-made disaster. Governments have been so impressed by the efficiency of NGOs that they have contracted them to perform foreign aid and disaster relief work that was once done by less competent government employees.

Problems, however, have developed. The employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, are infused with a certain degree of idealism. These foreign NGOs bring to disaster areas a bunch of outsiders who have a higher standard of living and different ideas. Several decades ago the main thing these outsiders brought with them was food and medical care. The people on the receiving end were pretty desperate and grateful for the help.

But NGOs have branched out into development and social programs. This has caused unexpected problems. Development programs disrupt the existing economic and political relations. The local leaders are often not happy with this, as the NGOs are not always willing to work closely with the existing power structure. While the local worthies may be exploitative, and even corrupt, they are local and they do know more about popular attitudes and ideals than the foreigners. NGOs with social programs (education, especially educating women, new lifestyle choices, and more power for people who don't usually have much) often run into conflict with local leaders. Naturally, the local politicians and traditional leaders have resisted or even fought back.

NGOs are not military organizations but they can fight back. They do this mainly through the media because they also use favorable media coverage to propel their fund raising efforts. NGOs will also ask, or demand, that the UN or other foreign governments send in peacekeeping troops in to protect the NGOs from hostile locals. This had disastrous effects in Somalia during the early 1990s. Some NGOs remained, or came back, to Somalia after the peacekeepers left. These NGOs learned how to cope on their own. They hired local muscle for protection, as well as cutting deals with the local warlords. But eventually the local Islamic radicals became upset at the alien ideas these Western do-gooders brought with them and chased all foreign NGO staff out.

In eastern Congo aid workers have found themselves the primary target of the local bandits and militias that had created the problems that attracted the foreign aid in the first place. NGOs have learned to raise mini-armies when they want to. But in areas where there are peacekeepers and the NGOs believe they are not being well served, the NGOs will often simply depart, amid a flurry of press releases, to show their displeasure at the security arrangements or the political goals of the peacekeepers.

Increasingly NGOs have stayed home and spent all their time lobbying governments (usually Western ones) to force tyrannical governments to behave and to stop Western firms from selling dictators stuff like FinFisher that helps keep the dictator in power.

NGOs have formal legal recognition in many countries and internationally they, as a group, have some standing. NGOs have become a player in international affairs, even though individual NGOs each have their own unique foreign policy. But, as a group, they are a power to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, there is no leader of all the NGOs you can negotiate with. Each one has to be dealt with separately. Since NGOs also come from many different countries (although most have staff that speak English), peacekeepers can also run into language and cultural customs problems. NGOs have turned out to be another good idea that, well, got complicated in unexpected ways.

This move from delivering aid to delivering (often unwelcome) ideas has put all NGOs at risk. The NGOs have become players in a worldwide civil war between local traditional ideas and the more transnational concepts that trigger violent reactions in many parts of the world. Now, concerned about doing more harm (or a lot of harm) than good, NGOs are at least talking about how to deal with some of the dangerous conditions their presence creates.

 

 


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