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In the secretive world of surveillance technology, he goes just by his initials: MJM.
His mystique is such that other security professionals avoid using wireless Internet near him. MJM himself suggests that those he meets allay their paranoia by taking batteries out of their mobile phones.
MJM -- Martin J. Muench -- is the developer of Andover, U.K.-based Gamma Group’s FinFisher intrusion software, which he sells to police and spy agencies around the world for monitoring computers and smartphones to intercept Skype calls, peer through Web cameras and record keystrokes.
In the past year, the hacker-turned-executive has himself been under attack as the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings unravelled the cloak of secrecy he’d operated behind.
FinFisher’s once-elusive FinSpy tool has been exposed targeting activists from the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain; decoded for the first time by computer-virus hunters; placed under export control by the U.K.; and traced to countries with poor human rights records, such as Turkmenistan in Central Asia.
As evidence mounts that repressive regimes routinely use surveillance gear to track and capture dissidents, FinSpy has been singled out as one of the most invasive weapons. The attention has subjected Muench to death threats, he says, and government scrutiny.
It’s against this backdrop -- which Muench, 31, calls a “witch hunt” -- that he’s decided to explain himself, opening his Munich offices to a journalist.
“I’m the personified evil,” Muench says of his role as the face of FinFisher, which he defends as a tool for catching pedophiles and terrorists. Muench, who was born in northern Germany and grew up in a town (population 800) that he won’t name out of concern for his family’s security, started hacking at around age 13. As managing director of Gamma’s German-based unit, Gamma International GmbH, he’s developed FinFisher spyware since 2007, and leads its marketing.
“The product helps to catch serious criminals and helps to save lives,” says Muench, who stands about 1.9 meters tall (almost 6 feet 3 inches), has close-cropped hair and is dressed in a black, collared shirt, distressed blue jeans and black shoes. He won’t provide examples of crimes solved, saying it could jeopardize clients’ methods. “So we have to live with the bad guy image,” he says.
Other units of Gamma Group provide intelligence training and sell surveillance vans, wireless microphone systems and interrogation rooms outfitted with audio and video capabilities. The company is controlled by members of a British family, the Nelsons.
Of Gamma’s products, FinFisher has become the flashpoint. It represents the leading edge of a largely unregulated trade in cybertools that is transforming surveillance, making it more intrusive as it reaches across borders and spies into peoples’ digital devices, whether in their living rooms or back pockets.
A Bloomberg News investigation this year into the abuses of intrusion products and the threats of computer espionage has shown how technologies from companies such as Gamma and its competitor, Milan-based HackingTeam, represent the next step in a digital arms race between governments and the people they watch.
Political dissidents who discovered FinSpy trying to infect their e-mail inboxes heap scorn on Muench for what they say is complicity in rights abuses.
“I have little respect for this man for his role in the violation of my privacy rights and for risking the work we are doing,” says Ala’a Shehabi, 31, a U.K.-born democracy advocate and economist hit by FinSpy in Bahrain this April and May.
Muench responds that he and his spyware have been misunderstood, and that any product can be used for harm. “So can a can of fizzy drink or a car battery,” he says.
To drive that point home, Gamma Group’s communications director, Robert Partridge, points to a glass bottle of Coca- Cola in the middle of a table in the company’s conference room. Carbonated beverages, he explains, could be very painful when poured in the noses of interrogation subjects who have been turned upside down.
Muench says Gamma acts responsibly by only selling FinFisher to governments and obeying the export laws of the U.S., the U.K. and Germany. After he sells a system, it’s out of his hands, says Muench.
MJM as Personified Evil Says Spyware Saves Lives Not Kills Them - Businessweek