The corporate surveillance industry has become a global monster
It has never been easier for governments to secretly access and monitor the phones of activists, journalists, dissidents, politicians and, lastly, anyone they want. Zero-click tools, easily purchased from private company developers, allow authorities to surreptitiously hack victims’ phones, even if the target does not click a link. This technology has been used repeatedly to spy on and harass innocent people around the world, often with impunity. The associates of Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist, may be the most notable recent victims of these practices, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
The public knows more than ever about the underground world of business-assisted surveillance thanks to new large-scale investigation from more than 100 journalists from 17 news agencies to NSO Group, an Israeli provider of surveillance technology. A French journalism association called Histoires interdites and Amnesty International got a list of 50,000 phone numbers believed to be monitored by NSO Group customers and shared with the media in 10 countries. (The source of the list of targeted numbers has not been reported.)
The dozens of resulting stories show how one of the tech industry’s most amoral players, fueled by Israeli military and tech expertise, capital investment funding, and a wave of digital authoritarianism sweeping the world – has come to dominate the newly privatized global security state. They also show how NSO Group enabled the world’s most vicious governments: Among those targeted by the company’s malware were allies of Khashoggi, who were targeted by Saudi Arabia days of surveillance after the journalist’s assassination at the hands of state agents. More worryingly, these stories reveal an underground industry that remains unregulated in part because many governments seem to prefer it that way. Like Peter Thiel’s Palantir, NSO Group has grown into one of the paradigmatic technology companies of the new era of cyber-surveillance, merging private capital and intelligence connections to achieve surprising power. Whether this can be brought under control is an open question.