Geopolitics

Meet The German Jazz Pianist Selling Spy Software To Totalitarian Regimes

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.

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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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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