Privacy International said Tuesday it had filed a lawsuit before London's High Court over the government's refusal to say whether it was investigating U.K.-based Gamma International, whose FinFisher software has been linked to use in more than two dozen countries, including Bahrain, Ethiopia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
Privacy International argues that the software's export may have broken British law and has been lobbying for months for an official investigation into the company's activities.
British officials have refused to comment on whether they're investigating. In a telephone interview, Privacy International's Eric King said the lawsuit is aimed at forcing the government to show its hand.
"If they reveal that there has been no investigation thus far, we need to challenge them," he said.
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs - Britain's export authority - declined to comment on the suit, citing legal reasons. Gamma International did not immediately return an email seeking comment, although it has said previously that it complies with U.K. export laws.
The export of Western surveillance software to repressive regimes has drawn increasing attention in the wake of the pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world that laid bare the high-tech methods used by state spy agencies to stifle dissent.
FinFisher - a Trojan horse program that can dodge anti-virus protections to steal data, log keystrokes, and eavesdrop on Skype calls - came under particular scrutiny after Bloomberg News reported last year that the software had been used to spy on Bahraini dissident Ala'a Shehabi.
Gamma has denied selling FinFisher to Bahrain, suggesting that the software may have been a stolen demonstration copy.