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Digital Rights Groups Release Tool to “Detekt” Government Spyware

Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:41 PM
Neil Sardesai
Last Updated March 4, 2021 4:41 PM

DetektBy now, most of the world is well aware of the U.S. National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance programs. Whistleblower Edward Snowden obtained nearly 2 million classified documents from the NSA and revealed just how far governments were willing to invade online privacy, typically with the excuse of thwarting terrorism.

A recently-proposed piece of legislation called the “Freedom Act” could have limited the NSA’s authority, yet it failed to obtain the necessary votes in the Senate. That’s why third party human rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Amnesty International, and Privacy International are devising their own solutions to combat government surveillance. The groups have partnered with security researcher Claudio Guarnieri to release an open-source tool called “Detekt” that scans Windows systems for known government spyware.

“Detekting” Government Spyware

“It has been well documented that governments are using surveillance technology to target human rights defenders, journalists, NGOs, political opponents, religious or ethnic minorities and to conduct countrywide surveillance.” -Detekt Home Page

Detekt looks for traces of FinFisher and Hacking Team RCS, malware well-known to be used by governments to spy on activists and journalists. The tool is entirely open-source, so anyone can review the code and make sure the software doesn’t have any hidden malicious properties. However, other than checking for FinFisher and RCS, Detekt doesn’t really do much.

Where Detekt Falls Short

Modifying spyware to avoid detection by antivirus programs isn’t particularly difficult. Since Detekt’s detection methods are also open-source, it’s safe to assume that FinFisher and RCS will quickly and easily be updated to avoid Detekt. Furthermore, this tool only checks for known government spyware. It’s highly unlikely that governments around the world only rely on these two tools. It’s safe to assume that there are many other spyware tools that we don’t even know about, and as a result, go unnoticed by Detekt. So it’s important to not gain a false sense of security just because Detekt doesn’t find anything on your computer.

Why it Still Matters

Detekt isn’t perfect; even the creators admit it.

“Because Detekt is a best-effort tool and spyware companies make frequent changes to their software to avoid detection, users should keep in mind that Detekt cannot conclusively guarantee that your computer is not compromised by the spyware it aims to detect. However, we hope that the availability of this tool will help us to detect some ongoing infections, provide advice to infected users, and contribute to the debate around curbing the use of government spyware in countries where it is linked to human rights abuses.”

Detekt is referred to as a “quick experiment” on its website, and is intended primarily to “raise awareness” of government spyware than to actually stop it. Domestic surveillance is no longer limited to authoritarian countries. Even supposedly “free” countries like the United States have dragnet surveillance, implemented by the same people we voted into office. The creators of Detekt hope to restore online privacy in an age of nearly unchecked surveillance.

Have any thoughts on Detekt and government surveillance in general? Share them in the comments section below.

Images from ResistSurveillance.org and Shutterstock.