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Turkey used German software to spy on opposition

Alexander Pearson
May 15, 2018

Opposition protesters in Turkey were reportedly deceived into downloading a spy app made by a German firm. Germany has previously vowed to block exports of spy software to authoritarian countries.

Supporters of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu wave Turkish flags on the 19th day of a protest
Image: Reuters/U. Bektas

The Turkish government used a German-made spy program to infiltrate the smartphones of Turkish opposition members, according to a report seen by German media.

Germany has strict rules for exporting spy software and has in the past vowed to block exports to authoritarian countries.

Read more: FinFisher spyware preliminary investigation started in Germany

What we know so far:

German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and public broadcasters NDR and WDR reported the news based on a study by the digital rights group Access Now.

  • Access Now found evidence that Turkish officials had used the program "Finspy" by Finfisher, a German company headquartered in Munich, to spy on members of the opposition party CHP.
  • The software was primarily used during a three-week protest against Turkish President Recep Erdogan organized by CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in July 2017.
  • Fake Twitter accounts posted links to websites that promised to inform protesters about the demonstration if they downloaded a smartphone app.
  • The app included Finspy software and allowed the government to gain real-time access to the smartphone owners contacts, photos and videos.
  • A security expert at Germany's University of Bochum independently analyzed the software and told Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR that "it appeared to be a newer version" of previous Finspy software.

Erdogan's informants in Germany

Read more: German export loopholes help autocratic regimes

What were the reactions?

Responding to a question by the three media outlets, the German Economy Ministry said it had not approved any export licenses for spy software since October 2014. It did not respond to a follow up question about whether the ministry had approved any export licenses for FinFisher specifically.

FinFisher refused to comment on the story after being contacted by Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR.

The Germany director for Human Rights Watch, Wenzel Michalski, wrote on Twitter: "This [news] would mean there are holes in [our] export regulations. This must be investigated immediately."

Green lawmaker Konstantin von Notz wrote on Twitter: "Turkish spy attacks on the opposition with technology that was created with German tax money and should never have been exported?! The #GroKo [German coalition government] must urgently clarify [the situation] and prevent something like this from happening in the future."

Germany's export policy: The same three media outlets reported in 2014 that then-Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel wanted to stop exports of spy software to authoritarian governments. Gabriel was quoted as saying: "We want to stop the export of these types of technologies to countries that suppress civil rights movements and that do not accept basic human rights."

What is Finfisher? The company works exclusively with governments to provide police and intelligence software. On its website, it says its mission is "to provide first-class cyber solutions and knowledge for successful operations against organized crime."

Read more: Weapons exports decrease significantly under Gabriel