Fingers at work, a symphony of contradictions
Fingers at work, a symphony of contradictions
Bastian Brinkmann, Jasmin Klofta and Frederik Obermaier

MUNICH - It’s all so simple in the 1998 Disney movie Mulan. The heroine disguised as a boy joins the Chinese military to fight the enemy – armies of shadowy, faceless Huns that darken the horizon. Classic good versus evil.

Martin Münch says he knows who the bad guys are, and that he’s one of the good guys. The problem is many people don’t think he’s a good guy. To them, he’s on the wrong side of the Arab Spring. Some human rights groups accuse him of selling his software to totalitarian governments either knowingly or with flippant disregard for the use they can make of it.

Münch, 31, is a developer of spy software for computers and smartphones. Thanks to his FinFisher Trojan, the police and secret services can follow what somebody types into Google and says on Skype, and check out what they bought on their smartphone. Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) is testing FinFisher for possible use.

Münch is proud of his product, and for the first time he recently showed German journalists how it works. Up to this point, the media had not been given access to his development offices in Munich. The plaque out front reads: Gamma Group. Inside, a dozen staffers sit in front of screens.

Münch, co-owner and CEO, is good at explaining technological toys. Maybe that’s because he’s self-taught. He didn’t study computer science – he’s a musician, jazz piano and guitar. But nowadays he’s showing folks at security conferences how to infect computers. Münch sees himself a bit like Mushu, the little dragon in Mulan – the cool helper who stands by Mulan during battle. Münch named the company through which he owns 15% of Gamma International GmbH “Mushun” confessing with a sheepish grin how he added the ‘n’ that ends the name the same way as his own.

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Martin Münch - Source: buggedplanet

Both the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Guardian are in possession of documents showing that Gamma Group owns a company in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven. When he was asked about this, Münch at first vehemently denied the existence of the company. When the Guardian sent him relevant documents, he apologized: he really did not think, he said, that such a subsidiary existed. During the visit to Gamma offices, Münch answers business questions evasively. No he doesn’t have any figures, doesn’t know who company partners are. "I’m just a little technician guy," he says adding that he is also the one who makes the strategic decisions.

Gamma’s bestseller in its FinFisher family is FinSpy. Münch leans over an Apple laptop and shows what the program does. First, the user selects the targeted operating system: iPhone, Android cell phone, PC with Windows or Linux. The Trojan can be sent via many servers in different countries so that even computer-savvy victims can’t tell who is monitoring them.

Users also control how the Trojan behaves. Key logging? Screen recording? Other options include using the microphone as a bug; appropriating data; locating cell phones. The Trojan can also turn the target’s webcam on. FinSpy presents all devices under surveillance as a list. Double click and you’re on whichever one you select. The Trojan is so powerful it’s like being with the target, looking over their shoulder.

FinSpy normally costs around 150,000 euros but can run into the seven figures, Münch says. Authorities have to buy a license for every device being monitored. Most buy five licenses, he says, but some buy up to 20. "The targets are individual criminals,” Münch says. Not “alleged criminals.” He uses “criminals” and “perpetrators” as if they were synonyms for “suspects” or “targets.”

Spy software for a police state?

In Bahrain, the island state in the Persian Gulf, those who oppose the regime are targets – and the regime used Martin Münch’s software to get back at them. Regime critics at home and abroad started getting weird e-mail messages. Their e-mails were being read by government agents, their phone conversations listened to, all thanks to Gamma Trojans. The Citizen Lab research institute at the University of Toronto in Canada examined some of the spam e-mails and found references to “finspyv2” – the second version of FinSpy – and “Martin Münch” in the program code.

Spy software for a police state? Gamma says that somebody stole a client demo version. But it has provided no clear-cut statement with regard to Bahrain, keeping things very hush-hush.

In early February, Reporters Without Borders and other human rights activists complained to Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi), demanding stricter controls on Gamma exports in line with OECD recommendations. If the Ministry follows-up, it could call on Gamma and the activists to meet at the Ministry to seek a mutually acceptable way forward.

Münch stresses that Gamma respects German export laws. That sounds good, except that FinFisher products aren’t shipped from Munich but from the UK where the mother company Gamma Group is headquartered in Andover near Stonehenge. Its founder – and, along with Münch, majority shareholder – is Louthean Nelson.

It is not publically known how many of Gamma’s customers are dictatorships. Citizen Lab has found servers with FinFisher traces in Brunei, Ethiopia, Turkmenistan and the UAE.

Gamma came to widespread public attention during the Arab Spring, after Egyptian protesters found a written tender to the fallen regime – software, hardware, and training – all for 287,137 euros. Münch claims nothing was ever delivered.

To Andy Müller-Maguhn, Gamma is nothing less than a "software weapons supplier." On his website buggedplanet.info he publishes press reports, lists information about Gamma companies and their principals. Since Münch’s address has been revealed he’s been receiving anonymous postcards that read: “I have a right to privacy.”

Münch speaks indignantly about his critics. "We have this bad boy image. It’s not a good feeling,” he says, and he doesn’t believe Gamma deserves it. He is promising greater transparency, for example, the appointment of a human rights delegate to the board. Then he says he will probably fill that role himself. After several hours in Münch’s company there is the impression that his moral compass doesn’t have a needle.

However, Münch also says he’s having a code of conduct drafted. And Gamma is talking to two unnamed human rights groups about providing advice on exports. He’s not sure of his ground there, he says: after all, the U.S. tortures too, in Guantanamo – does that make it a lawless state? "Just how much torture is acceptable?" If several human rights organizations come out and condemn a country Gamma will not sell its products there, Münch says – even if that country is not on government warning lists.

The scandal came as a big surprise to Münch: "Software doesn’t torture anybody," he says, claiming not to understand what the big deal is about. "I think it’s good when the police do their job” – going after the bad guys. The problem is that in some cases the “bad guys” are political opponents.

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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