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.