Governments are prepared to spend billions of dollars to protect the state. Dictatorships will spend even more to maintain the status quo.
One day in July, a blogger from the United Arab Emirates discovered the extent his government would go to make sure his voice was silenced.
Ahmed Mansoor, an outspoken blogger from the UAE and a member of the “UAE Five” — a group of Emirati activists jailed last year for criticizing government leaders — opened a suspicious e-mail with a Microsoft Word attachment that, when opened, “deployed spyware that could monitor his every keystroke, record his passwords, social networking and instant messenger chats and even his voice conversations through his computer’s microphone,” Nicole Perlroth writes in this great New York Times article.
The malicious spyware was traced back to a post office box in Abu Dhabi that matched the corporate headquarters of the Royal Group, a UAE conglomerate. The company is headed by Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, one of the 19 sons of the founder of the UAE, but the fact Royal Group came up in the records isn’t conclusive proof that he is involved.
But for Mr Mansoor, a simple mistake of clicking on the email attachment landed him in a lot of trouble getting him inexplicably beaten by unknown assailants, Perlroth writes.
The level of sophisticated behind this spyware appears to be so powerful it can turn on webcams and microphones and grab documents off hard drives, Bloomberg reporters write in this extensive article on hacking that refers to the two main spyware companies that have been linked to these or similar incidents: the UK’s Gamma Group and Italy’s Hacking Team.
Gamma was also involved in a controversy over allegedly supplying spyware technology to the former Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak, but the firm denied this.
It is a frightening development showing how nations are using increasingly complex tools to monitor their citizens.
The UAE is not alone, by any means.
Earlier this summer, Morgan Marquis-Boire, one of the first security researchers to discover spyware in e-mails sent to Bahraini activists, released new evidence suggesting that spyware sold by Hacking Team had also been used to monitor political activists, Perlroth writes in the NYT article.
Incidents in Morocco and other countries with “questionable human rights records, like Brunei and Turkmenistan” are also named as having been subject to malicious hacking from spyware companies.
There was potential for an unusual peek into the surveillance world when executives from Gamma Group and Hacking Team spoke at an annual surveillance trade show in Washington earlier this month, however with many of the seminars open only to “Government attendees”, little has been released to the public.