"In the last five years, Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates, has been jailed and fired from his job, along with having his passport confiscated, his car stolen, his email hacked, his location tracked and his bank account robbed of $140,000. He has also been beaten, twice, in the same week.
Mr. Mansoor’s experience has become a cautionary tale for dissidents, journalists and human rights activists. It used to be that only a handful of countries had access to sophisticated hacking and spying tools. But these days, nearly all kinds of countries, be they small, oil-rich nations like the Emirates, or poor but populous countries like Ethiopia, are buying commercial spyware or hiring and training programmers to develop their own hacking and surveillance tools.
The barriers to join the global surveillance apparatus have never been lower. Dozens of companies, ranging from NSO Group and Cellebrite in Israel to Finfisherin Germany and Hacking Team in Italy, sell digital spy tools to governments.
A number of companies in the United States are training foreign law enforcement and intelligence officials to code their own surveillance tools. In many cases these tools are able to circumvent security measures like encryption. Some countries are using them to watch dissidents. Others are using them to aggressively silence and punish their critics, inside and outside their borders.
“There’s no substantial regulation,” said Bill Marczak, a senior fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, who has been tracking the spread of spyware around the globe. “Any government who wants spyware can buy it outright or hire someone to develop it for you. And when we see the poorest countries deploying spyware, it’s clear money is no longer a barrier.”"