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.A former top adviser to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, spoke of using NSO’s products abroad as part of extensive surveillance efforts.CreditGiuseppe Cacace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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.