Student Works
06 August 2019

The Business of Privatised Espionage

Mona Zimmermann and Severin Ruoff, both pursuing a Master in International Affairs, argue in a paper and associated documentary that NSO Group’s hack of WhatsApp is an important insight into larger global developments.

On 13 May 2019, the Financial Times published, “WhatsApp voice calls used to inject Israeli spyware on phones”. The article reported that NSO Group – an Israeli technology firm focused on cyber intelligence – had developed a malicious code that exploited a vulnerability in the encrypted WhatsApp messaging app. While NSO denies any involvement in the hack, numerous groups such as Inter Alia, the Citizen Lab, Amnesty International and Google’s security team are certain of the group’s involvement due to the associated digital footprint.

Decisively, NSO is contributing to a new order by providing services that are traditionally strongly associated with state authority. The market of privatised espionage, in which the private company is a worldwide leader, is challenging world powers with its more sophisticated and innovative spyware. Their cutting-edge technology levels, if not overtakes, software that was once thought to be restricted to only the most advanced spy agencies, such as the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) or the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). In this regard, the WhatsApp-hack illustrates the company’s competence, as WhatsApp is thought to offer one of the strongest and most secure encryption services. 

NSO is also disrupting the current order by delivering its services to anyone willing to pay for them. Its sales pitch has been a runaway success by discreetly allowing its customers to buy the software without having to develop the required capabilities themselves. For example, Saudi Arabia, a long-term adversary of the Israeli state, is considered an important customer of the Israeli company. Conspicuously, this engagement was also supposedly extended to the phone of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi

While the previous two points produce new practices, the corporation is reproducing the national security narrative of states, justifying intrusions on privacy with the fight against crime and terror. NSO explicitly states that its cyber intelligence products are “|...] licensed to government and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of investigating and preventing crime and terror”. Their mission statement is “to work to save lives and create a better, safer world”. The fight against crime and terror thereby legitimises the total access to information for surveillance purposes. 

Conclusively, the emerging business of privatised espionage is reshuffling and reordering the authoritative disruption of power and the paper uncovered many dimensions of the politics involved. Yet, the findings were only able to display the tip of the iceberg given the mysterious and murky world of digital espionage, which largely acts in the shadows, beyond the reach of the public eye.

The paper and associated documentary were written and produced for: “Politics of Commercial Security”, a course taught by Professor Anna Leander as part of the Master in International Affairs programme.

This article is part of “Student Works”, a news series highlighting the best student papers from the Graduate Institute.