The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.
Governments that purchase spyware tend to share a common pretext: the need to fight terrorist and other public safety threats. But we know that when autocratic regimes acquire state-of-the-art surveillance technology, they also intend to use it against activists, journalists, academics and any other dissenting voices they deem a threat. Spyware programs — used to infect phones and other hardware without the owner’s knowledge in order to track movements and steal information — are tools of repression just as surely as guns.
There have been too many well-documented cases to ignore this basic 21st century reality. Yet companies continue to sell their spyware to despotic governments, in some cases claiming ignorance about what is likely to happen next. This trend has rocked the community of political dissidents across the globe and has put them at greater risk of arrest and much worse.
We know because this technology has been used on us. As a naturalized American from Saudi Arabia and a British academic, we count ourselves and many colleagues among the victims.
One of us, Ali Al-Ahmed, saw the Saudi government steal his personal data from Twitter, then use it to track down, imprison and torture his Twitter followers.
The other one of us, Matthew Hedges, was a graduate student on a research trip to the United Arab Emirates when he discovered that authorities had hacked his phone even before he arrived in the country. He was arrested in 2018, charged with spying and initially sentenced to life in prison. Ultimately held for six months, he was kept in handcuffs and fed debilitating drugs.
Painful though these experiences continue to be for us, we are relatively safe living in the United States and Britain. But our experiences are all too common. They highlight the ongoing, systemic abuse that…