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

Spying on Americans

The proliferation of companies trying to replicate NSO’s success and compete in what Moody’s estimates is a $12 billion market for so-called lawful intercept spyware has set off a fierce competition to hire American, Israeli and Russian veterans of the world’s most sophisticated intelligence agencies — and for the companies to poach talent from one another.

In late 2017, NSO executives grew concerned about a spate of resignations. Private detectives hired to investigate soon found themselves on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, tailing a group of former NSO employees — all veterans of Israel’s Intelligence Unit 8200 — going back and forth to work at a research facility.

The building was owned by a company affiliated with DarkMatter, an Emirati firm that had quietly hired the Israelis to develop technologies for the U.A.E. to conduct cyberoperations against perceived enemies at home and abroad.

DarkMatter also has offices inside a gleaming tower on the highway connecting Abu Dhabi to Dubai, the same building that houses the U.A.E.’s Signals Intelligence Agency, the Emirates’ version of the N.S.A.

This is not by accident. DarkMatter is effectively an arm of the state that has worked directly with Emirati intelligence operatives on numerous missions such as hacking government ministries in Turkey, Qatar and Iran and spying on dissidents inside the Emirates.

DarkMatter has origins in another company, an American firm called CyberPoint that years ago won contracts from the U.A.E. to help protect the Emirates from computer attacks. CyberPoint obtained a license from the American government to work for the Emiratis, a necessary step intended to regulate the export of military and intelligence services. Many of the company’s employees had worked on highly classified projects for the N.S.A. and other American intelligence agencies.

 

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