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Meet The Cyber Mercenaries Selling Spyware To Governments

These are the world’s most notorious cyber mercenaries, and the lone hacker fighting—and hacking—them.
July 19, 2016, 1:00pm

On the night of March 5, 2011, at the height of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, a group of pro-democracy protesters stormed and ransacked the office of Egypt's security service.

Inside the offices, the protesters found a strange document: an agreement between the regime of the dictator Hosni Mubarak and the UK surveillance tech company Gamma International to provide spyware known as FinFisher to the country's spies for a 5-month trial.


The release of that document marked the first time most of the world heard of FinFisher. In the months and years ahead, FinFisher, along with its Italian competitor Hacking Team, would become the poster children for a new kind of surveillance, and a new kind of government contractors. Gone were the days of spies dressed in suits and sunglasses, tailing suspects across cities. Now, the best way for a government to spy on a target was ready-made malicious computer software created by those two companies.

In the years following that fateful ransacking, researchers at Citizen Lab, a digital watchdog at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, uncovered several cases where FinFisher and Hacking Team's spyware was used by repressive regimes to spy on dissidents, human rights activists and journalists. The researchers even mapped their once-secret clients, revealing the global reach of this new kind of spyware.

Then, in the summer 2014, a mysterious hacker going by the name of Phineas Fisher broke into the systems of FinFisher, exposing some of the company's' internal and secret data, and showing that even hackers-for-hire can be hacked. A year later, Phineas Fisher came back with another bang, hitting Hacking Team and exposing all its secrets online.

To this day, no one knows who Phineas Fisher really is, and he hasn't been caught yet. The hacker explained in detail how he hacked the two companies, and outlined his ideas to inspire a new generation of aggressive, technically skilled hacktivists, in an exclusive interview with Motherboard this spring.

As part of VICELAND's new series CYBERWAR, VICE Canada's reporter Ben Makuch explores the world of cyber mercenaries, and speaks to Phineas Fisher in an exclusive interview, just a few weeks after his attack on Hacking Team.

You can watch CYBERWAR's Cyber Mercenaries episode on VICELAND on Tuesday, at 10:30 PM ET. Meanwhile, read some of Motherboard's best articles about the spyware, Hacking Team, and government hacking: