With the widespread use of smartphones and other easily accessible technologies that were unfathomable decades ago, the realm of government intelligence gathering-turned-private sector has exploded. As it’s a field we operate in, Interfor understands the power that many of these techniques and technologies hold, and we look to conduct ourselves with the highest code of ethics. But for some it has become a slippery slope, especially as technology has become more accessible and more money has entered the space. If we have learned anything since the Khashoggi murder, it’s that even today, in this increasingly transparent age, corrupt regimes will stop at nothing to silence their most vocal critics, including the deployment of the latest tech. The Interfor team is going to cover some of the trends, raise some of the difficult questions, and give our thoughts on the way forward.
Khashoggi Going Global
Sadly, the U.S. government has not admonished the Saudis in the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which gives probable license to commit an act like this in the future. Saudi Arabia is a dictatorial regime run by a group of princes bound to the monarchy through familial ties, which is news to no one. Where it becomes complicated is the technology the Saudi intelligence services used to track Khashoggi’s whereabouts, and where it originated from.
Of all the people in the world one of the last personalities we would want to get advice from is Edward Snowden. But speaking to a Cyber Security conference in Tel Aviv a few months ago via video chat he made a valid point that countries such as Israel have a responsibility to safeguard their technology. In speaking about the Pegasus software used on Khashoggi’s phone “how is it that we have… industries in developed countries using their powers not for saving lives but for making money to such an extent and to such a level of recklessness and irresponsibility that it actually starts costing lives?” This is of course a complicated matter as both Israel and Saudi Arabia look at Iran as a common enemy, with the former licensing out intelligence gathering technology to the Saudis and other nations in the Gulf. Still, democratic countries such as Israel and the United States have a moral obligation to their citizens to not support those who would blatantly violate human rights.
In addition to apps the global expansion of corporations from illiberal countries such as China on our telecommunications platforms could be compromising our very security. Companies such as Huawei that have become part of our telecommunication infrastructure act as intelligence gathering Trojan horses for the Chinese government. As this CNN report indicates about Huawei’s technology being used close to military sites, “according to FCC filings, those cell towers use Chinese technology that security experts warn could allow China to gather intelligence while also potentially mounting network attacks in the areas surrounding this and other sensitive military installations.”
Where is the higher moral ground?
While the optics of organizations such as NSO Group (which uses the Pegasus software) might be dismal it shows that private groups (and governments) are willing to pay significant sums for someone to do their dirty work. Another example of a spying app that the Gulf state the UAE used is the appropriately named Karma which was used to spy on diplomats and political opponents. As Reuters reported “in 2016 and 2017, Karma was used to obtain photos, emails, text messages and location information from targets’ iPhones. The technique also helped the hackers harvest saved passwords, which could be used for other intrusions.” The operatives who used this technology to spy on the victims worked on behalf of the UAE government and were American citizens. And closer to home virtue signaling Big Tech has at times not cooperated with the federal government, such as when Apple refused to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter.
Things become complicated in conflict zones and war time as was the case in Iraq with Blackwater a decade ago (and is repeating itself with the war in Yemen and the number of mercenaries on the ground). This begs the question, where do we draw the line on the citizens of this country using knowledge they gained in defense of America in the service of undemocratic regimes with dubious intentions?
There is always a line that a private organization needs to draw, usually it’s not to break the law, and not to violate ethics and morals. Sadly, we see that line being blurred further these days in pursuit of the dollar, including several examples in our own industry. Here at Interfor we pride ourselves on keeping to the highest ethical and legal standards, not just to protect our clients but to represent the security community in the best way we possibly can.