Government dissidents like to keep their plans a secret, particularly in countries with poor human-rights efforts. But the folks at Mozilla may be inadvertently helping those dissidents out when it sent a cease-and-desist letter Tuesday to a European company that makes spyware, the UK’s PC Advisor reports.
Computer-security researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab discovered that the spyware FinSpy was making itself look a whole lot like Mozilla’s Firefox browser. When recipients downloaded the file, the data on the computer became accessible to an external user as well as the ability to watch and listen to the computer’s user through the machine’s camera and microphone. Citizen Lab found that FinSpy “is being used in a number of countries with poor human rights records and has been used to target activists.”
FinSpy is owned by the UK’s Gamma Group, which is now the recipient of a letter from Mozilla asking the company to stop disguising its product as Firefox. Citizen Lab reports that FinSpy doesn’t just make itself look like Firefox; it actually “makes use of Mozilla's trademark and code.”
"The latest Malay-language sample masquerades as Mozilla Firefox in both file properties and in manifest," the researchers wrote in their “For Their Eyes Only” report. "This behavior is similar to samples discussed in some of our previous reports, including a demo copy of the product, and samples targeting Bahraini activists."
As researcher Morgan Marquis-Boire pointed out to Wired, cases like this don’t generally involve a known company: “We have something which is malware, doing what malware does, but it’s a commercial company that’s selling it,” he says. “So that’s where it gets interesting. You can actually say, ‘Hey can you guys knock it off.’” Whether the company listens or not is another story.
The International Business Times has it that FinFisher, the suite FinSpy is part of, became more widely known when “it was revealed that the Egyptian government's state security was in negotiations with Gamma International UK over the purchase of the software.”
Mozilla, of course, is livid. “We found what Gamma was doing to be highly offensive,” Alex Fowler, Mozilla’s chief privacy officer, told Slate.com. “The trust that people have put into the Mozilla brand, the Firefox brand, is one of our most important assets—it’s what people put a lot of faith in. So for a company using those brands and trademarks in a way that is playing off of that trust and brand to surreptitiously surveil citizens living in countries with repressive regimes—it's doubly offensive.” Slate notes that Gamma has not been winning a lot of popularity contests recently. Reporters Without Borders recently named it a “corporate enemy of the Internet.”
Fowler should be feeling extra protective of his brand these days since it has put some breathing room between itself and Google’s Chrome browser in terms of market share, TheInquirer.netreports. Though neither comes close to Internet Explorer’s market dominance, Firefox is getting a firmer grip on being the second most popular browser in the free world. Last year, the Inquirer reports, it was practically tied with 19.7 percent of the market going to Firefox and 19.6 going to Chrome. Chrome was down to 16.3 percent in April while Firefox was up to 20.3 percent.