A German company long criticized for helping governments spy on communications has shut down operations and filed for insolvency, according to authorities.
FinFisher GmbH sold spyware to law enforcement and intelligence agencies that could be used to hack into computers and mobile phones and then steal data and secretly record conversations. Human rights groups accused the company of providing the technology to authoritarian governments who used it to target activists and journalists.
In early February, Munich-based FinFisher and two related firms – FinFisher Labs GmbH and raedarius m8 GmbH – filed for insolvency, according to the German insolvency administrator JAFFÉ Rechtsanwälte Insolvenzverwalter.
“Employees are no longer employed in the companies,” a spokesman for the administrator said in a statement to Bloomberg News. “The business premises were abandoned in the course of the opening of insolvency proceedings and the location of the companies in Munich was dissolved, as there was no perspective of continuing business operations.”
Representatives of FinFisher didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The company had previously said that its technology was intended to help governments target serious criminals.
FinFisher’s demise comes after a period of legal scrutiny in Germany. In September 2019, a coalition of advocacy groups filed a criminal complaint against the company, alleging that it had supplied its spyware to Turkey without obtaining the required license from Germany’s federal government. The spyware had been used in Turkey to infect the phones of government critics, monitoring their calls, text messages, photos and location data, according to a technical report published by the digital rights group Access Now.
FinFisher denied providing its technology to Turkey or violating export laws.
Following that complaint, German law enforcement agencies opened an investigation into FinFisher and raided the company’s offices. The public prosecutor in Munich said the raids were in connection with suspected violations of foreign trading laws, German news broadcaster NDR reported.
The investigation remains ongoing, Anne Leiding, a spokesperson for the public prosecutor’s office in Munich, confirmed in a statement to Bloomberg. However, the insolvency has had an impact on the probe. The spokesperson said that the prosecutor’s office had ordered the seizure of FinFisher assets that it alleged had been “obtained from an illegal act.” The planned asset seizure is no longer possible due to the insolvency, she said.
News of FinFisher’s insolvency was previously reported by Netzpolitik, a German website that combines technology news and digital rights advocacy. Netzpolitik was one of the organizations involved in bringing the criminal complaint against FinFisher, alongside Reporters Without Borders Germany, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Society for Civil Rights.
Sarah Lincoln, a lawyer with the Society for Civil Rights, said FinFisher’s insolvency showed that the business of exporting surveillance software to repressive regimes had failed. “This is a direct success resulting from our criminal complaint,” she said.
Companies like FinFisher had previously been able to export their surveillance tools “virtually unhindered,” despite European export regulations, according to Miriam Saage-Maass, legal director at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.
FinFisher marketing documents published by WikiLeaks show the company offered its spyware, which it called “FinSpy,” as a means to “access target computer systems around the world.” It boasted the ability to hack computers and phones, bypassing anti-virus tools to carry out “live surveillance” of a person by secretly watching and listening to them through their own camera and microphone.
The company’s technology first came to widespread public attention in 2011 during the Arab Spring protests. Amid an uprising in Egypt, protesters ransacked a state security office and found documents showing that Egyptian authorities had obtained a trial of the spyware.
In 2012, Bloomberg News reported that Bahraini activists were targeted with spyware traced to FinFisher. Meanwhile, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab published a series of investigations that said governments in more than 30 countries were suspected of using FinFisher, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
The FinFisher technology was originally sold by an arm of British surveillance company Gamma Group.
Gamma’s FinFisher unit was dissolved in 2014, according to business records. The FinFisher spyware thereafter continued to be sold by the German-based companies that filed for insolvency in February.
Several other companies, including Israel’s NSO Group Ltd., continue to sell spyware to governments.