Small Wars Journal

A New Age of Warfare: How Internet Mercenaries Do Battle for Authoritarian Governments

A New Age of Warfare: How Internet Mercenaries Do Battle for Authoritarian Governments by Mark Mazzetti, Adam Goldman, Ronen Bergman and Nicole Perlroth – New York Times

… 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.

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…

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