A New Age of Warfare: How Internet Mercenaries Do Battle for Authoritarian Governments
Sophisticated surveillance, once the domain of world powers, is increasingly available on the private market. Smaller countries are seizing on the tools — sometimes for darker purposes.
The man in charge of Saudi Arabia’s ruthless campaign to stifle dissent went searching for ways to spy on people he saw as threats to the kingdom. He knew where to go: a secretive Israeli company offering technology developed by former intelligence operatives.
It was late 2017 and Saud al-Qahtani — then a top adviser to Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince — was tracking Saudi dissidents around the world, part of his extensive surveillance efforts that ultimately led to the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In messages exchanged with employees from the company, NSO Group, Mr. al-Qahtani spoke of grand plans to use its surveillance tools throughout the Middle East and Europe, like Turkey and Qatar or France and Britain.
The Saudi government’s reliance on a firm from Israel, an adversary for decades, offers a glimpse of a new age of digital warfare governed by few rules and of a growing economy, now valued at $12 billion, of spies for hire.
Today even the smallest countries can buy digital espionage services, enabling them to conduct sophisticated operations like electronic eavesdropping or influence campaigns that were once the preserve of major powers like the United States and Russia. Corporations that want to scrutinize competitors’ secrets, or a wealthy individual with a beef against a rival, can also command intelligence operations for a price, akin to purchasing off-the-shelf elements of the National Security Agency or the Mossad.
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NSO and a competitor, the Emirati firm DarkMatter, exemplify the proliferation of privatized spying. A monthslong examination by The New York Times, based on interviews with current and former hackers for governments and private companies and others as well as a review of documents, uncovered secret skirmishes in this burgeoning world of digital combat.
The firms have enabled governments not only to hack criminal elements like terrorist groups and drug cartels but also in some cases to act on darker impulses, targeting activists and journalists. Hackers trained by United States spy agencies caught American businesspeople and human rights workers in their net. Cybermercenaries working for DarkMatter turned a prosaic household item, a baby monitor, into a spy device.
The F.B.I. is investigating current and former American employees of DarkMatter for possible cybercrimes, according to four people familiar with the investigation. The inquiry intensified after a former N.S.A. hacker working for the company grew concerned about its activities and contacted the F.B.I., Reuters reported.
NSO and DarkMatter also compete fiercely with each other, paying handsomely to lure top hacking talent from Israel, the United States and other countries, and sometimes pilfering recruits from each other, The Times found.
The Middle East is the epicenter of this new era of privatized spying. Besides DarkMatter and NSO, there is Black Cube, a private company run by former Mossad and Israeli military intelligence operatives that gained notoriety after Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul, hired it to dig up dirt on his accusers. Psy-Group, an Israeli company specializing in social media manipulation, worked for Russian oligarchs and in 2016 pitched the Trump campaign on a plan to build an online army of bots and avatars to swing Republican delegate votes.
Last year, a wealthy American businessman, Elliott Broidy, sued the government of Qatar and a New York firm run by a former C.I.A. officer, Global Risk Advisors, for what he said was a sophisticated breach of his company that led to thousands of his emails spilling into public. Mr. Broidy said that the operation was motivated by hard-nosed geopolitics: At the beginning of the Trump administration, he had pushed the White House to adopt anti-Qatar policies at the same time his firm was poised to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from the United Arab Emirates, the archrival to Qatar.
A judge dismissed Mr. Broidy’s lawsuit, but suspicions have grown that Qatar had a hand in other operations, including the hacking and leaking of the emails of Yousef al-Otaiba, the influential Emirati ambassador in Washington.
The rapid expansion of this global high-tech battleground, where armies of cybermercenaries clash, has prompted warnings of a dangerous and chaotic future.
“Even the smallest country, on a very low budget, can have an offensive capability,” or initiate online attacks against adversaries, said Robert Johnston, founder of the cybersecurity firm Adlumin and a key investigator on Russia’s 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee. “Qatar and U.A.E. are going after each other, and that war is getting very, very bloody.
“The barriers to entry in this space are getting lower and lower.”
A Security Gap, Exploited
Before NSO helped the Saudi government track its adversaries outside the kingdom, and helped the Mexican government hunt drug kingpins, and earned hundreds of millions of dollars working for dozens of countries on six continents, the company consisted of two high school friends in northern Israel with one relatively mundane idea.