The FinSpy software tool is intended to be sold only for use in criminal investigations but Google engineer Morgan Marquis-Boire and computer scientist Bill Marczak said they've found evidence it is being used to target political dissidents. The software can capture images of computer screens, record Skype chats, activate cameras and microphones and record a computer user's keystrokes, The New York Times reported.
Marquis-Boire and Marczak said they uncovered mobile versions of the spyware modified to run on all major cellphones.
Use of the spyware has been linked to more than a dozen countries including Turkmenistan, Brunei and Bahrain, researchers said, although no government has admitted to employing the program for domestic surveillance purposes.
The Gamma Group, a British company that created FinSpy, says it sells the monitoring software to governments solely for criminal investigations.
It's a double-edged sword, critics say.
"This is dual-use equipment," said Eva Galperin, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties group. "If you sell it to a country that obeys the rule of law, they may use it for law enforcement.
"If you sell it to a country where the rule of law is not so strong, it will be used to monitor journalists and dissidents."