It’s never been easier for governments covertly to access and monitor the phones of activists, journalists, dissidents, politicians, and, well, anyone they want. “Zero-click” tools, easily purchased from private corporate developers, allow authorities to hack victims’ phones in surreptitious ways, even if the target doesn’t click a link. This technology has been repeatedly used to spy on and harass innocent people around the world, often with impunity. Associates of Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist, are perhaps the most notable recent victims of these practices, but there are hundreds, or even thousands, more.
The public knows more than we ever have about the underground world of corporate-assisted surveillance thanks to wide-ranging new investigation from more than 100 journalists at 17 news organizations into NSO Group, an Israeli purveyor of surveillance technologies. A French journalism nonprofit called Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International obtained a list of 50,000 phone numbers believed to be targeted for surveillance by NSO Group customers and shared them with media outlets in 10 countries. (The provenance of the list of targeted numbers hasn’t been reported.)
The dozens of resulting stories show how one of the tech industry’s most amoral actors—fueled by Israeli military and technological expertise, private equity funding, and a tide of digitally empowered authoritarianism sweeping the world—have 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 for surveillance days after the journalist’s murder at the hands of state agents. Most worryingly, these stories reveal a clandestine industry that remains unregulated in part because many governments seem to prefer it that way. Like Peter Thiel’s Palantir, NSO Group has become one of the paradigmatic tech companies of the new era of cyber-surveillance, fusing private capital and intelligence connections to achieve startling power. Whether it can be reined in at all is an open question.