More and more, governments are using powerful spying software to target human rights activists and journalists, often the forgotten victims of cyberwar. Now, these victims have a new tool to protect themselves.
Called Detekt, it scans a person's computer for traces of surveillance software, or spyware. A coalition of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the Electronic Frontier Foundation launched Detekt, with the goal of equipping activists and journalists with a free tool to discover if they've been hacked.
"Our ultimate aim is for human rights defenders, journalists and civil society groups to be able to carry out their legitimate work without fear of surveillance, harassment, intimidation, arrest or torture," Amnesty wrote in a statement. The open-source tool was developed by security researcher Claudio Guarnieri who has been investigating government abuse of spyware for years. He often collaborates with other researchers at University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.
During their investigations, Guarnieri and his colleagues discovered, for example, that the Bahraini government used software created by German company FinFisher to spy on human rights activists. They also found out that the Ethiopian government spied on journalists in the U.S. and Europe, using software developed by Hacking Team, another company that sells off-the-shelf surveillance tools.
Detekt only works with Windows, and it's designed to discover malware developed both by commercial firms, as well as popular spyware used by cybercriminals, such as BlackShades RAT (Remote Access Tool) and Gh0st RAT. The tool has some limitations, though: It's only a scanner, and doesn't remove the malware infection, which is why Detekt's official site warns that if there are traces of malware on your computer, you should stop using it "immediately," and and look for help. It also might not detect newer versions of the spyware developed by FinFisher, Hacking Team and similar companies.
Joanna Rutkowska, a researcher who develops the security-minded operating system Qubes, said computers with traditional operating systems are inherently insecure, and that tools like Detekt can't help with that. "Releasing yet another malware scanner does nothing to address the primary problem," she told Mashable. "Yet, it might create a false sense of security for users." But Guarnieri disagrees, saying that Detekt is not a silver-bullet solution intended to be used in place of commercial anti-virus software or other security tools.
For Mikko Hypponen, a renowned security expert and chief research officer for anti-virus vendor F-Secure, Detekt is a good project because its target audience — activists and journalists — don't often have access to expensive commercial tools. “Since Detekt only focuses on detecting a handful of spy tools — but detecting them very well — it might actually outperform traditional antivirus products in this particular area,” he told.