Spying software firm's secret BVI company revealed: Bugging technology sold to far east and Middle East Discovery by protesters in Egypt prompted inquiry
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) A number of nominee directors of companies registered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) have connections to military or intelligence activities, an investigation has revealed.
In the past, the British arms giant BAE was the most notorious user of offshore secrecy. The Guardian in 2003 revealed the firm had set up a pair of covert BVI entities. The undeclared subsidiaries were used to distribute hundreds of millions of pounds in secret payments to get overseas arms contracts.
Today the investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the Guardian uncovers the identities of other offshore operators.
Louthean Nelson owns the Gamma Group, a controversial computer surveillance firm employing ex-military personnel. It sells bugging technology to Middle East and south-east Asian governments. Nelson owns a BVI offshore arm, Gamma Group International Ltd.
Gamma's spyware, which can be used against dissidents, has turned up in the hands of Egyptian and Bahraini state security police, although Nelson's representative claims this happened inadvertently. He initially denied that Nelson was linked to Gamma, and denied that Nelson owned the anonymous BVI affiliate. Martin Muench, who has a 15% share in the company's German subsidiary, said he was the group's sole press spokesman, and told us: "Louthean Nelson is not associated with any company by the name of Gamma Group International Ltd. If by chance you are referring to any other Gamma company, then the explanation is the same for each and every one of them."
After he was confronted with evidence obtained by the Guardian/ICIJ investigation, Muench changed his position. He told us: "You are absolutely right, apparently there is a Gamma Group International Ltd. So in effect I was wrong - sorry. However I did not say that Louthean Nelson was not associated with any Gamma company, only the one that I thought did not exist."
Nelson set up his BVI offshoot in 2007, using an agency, BizCorp Management Pte, located in Singapore. His spokesman claimed the BVI company was not involved in sales of Gamma's Finfisher spyware. But he refused to disclose the entity's purpose.
Earlier this year, computer researchers in California told the New York Times they had discovered Finfisher being run from servers in Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Mongolia and a government ministry in Turkmenistan. The spying software was previously proved to have infected the computers of political activists in Bahrain, which Nelson visited in June 2006.
The Finfisher programme is marketed as a technique for so-called "IT intrusion". The code disguises itself as a software update or an email attachment, which the target victim is unaware will transmit back all his or her transactions and keystrokes. Gamma calls itself "a government contractor to state intelligence and law enforcement agencies for . . . high-quality surveillance vans" and telephone tapping of all kinds.
Activists' investigations into Finfisher began in March 2011, after protesters who broke into Egypt's state security headquarters discovered documents showing the bugging system was being marketed to the then president Hosni Mubarak's regime, at a price of $353,000.
Muench said demonstration copies of the software must have been stolen. He refused to identify Gamma's customers.
Nelson's father, Bill Nelson, is described as the CEO of the UK Gamma, which sells a range of covert surveillance equipment from a modern industrial estate outside Andover, Hampshire, near the family home in Winterbourne Earls.
In September, the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, called for an EU-wide ban on the export of such surveillance software to totalitarian states. The UK has now agreed that future Finfisher exports from Andover to questionable regimes will need government permission.
Other types of anonymous offshore user we have identified in this area include a south London private detective, Gerry Moore, who operated Swiss bank accounts. He did not respond to invitations to comment.
Another private intelligence agency, Ciex, was used as a postbox by the financier Julian Askin to set up a covert entity registered in the Cook Islands, called Pastech. He too did not respond to invitations to comment.
An ex-CIA officer and a South African mercenary, John Walbridge and Mauritz Le Roux, used London agents to set up a series of BVI-registered companies in 2005, after obtaining bodyguarding contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Le Roux told us one of his reasons was to accommodate "local partnerships" in foreign countries. Walbridge did not respond.
Leader comment, page 36 ?
Flying the flag
Egyptians celebrating in Tahrir Square after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Documents marketing Finfisher software to authorities (below) were found by protesters Photograph: Pedro Ugarte/AFP
(c) 2012 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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