Law in the Internet Society

The Rapidly Evolving Global Private Market of Cyber Surveillance

-- By DonnaZamir - 11 Oct 2019

In recent years, every so often we are provided with high-profile reports, normally using quite vague descriptions, about another private entity who has offered its expensive and cutting-edge surveillance services to a different wealthy entity, for a different purpose. Thus, an area which was once dominated by countries and government officials, is now comprised of private actors as well, which constantly act in this highly lucrative global industry.

Some of the prominent names who gained much attention in the global media are Dark Matter, the NSO group, Black Cube, Hacking Team, and Gamma Group; yet, it seems that there are many more less-known private companies, as well as individuals, who are also deeply involved in the cyber-spying global market.

The work of these private entities is described in various terms, such as cyber surveillance; cyber spying; lawful interception; spy businesses; competitive or business intelligence; and more of the like. Thus, while the conduct of these entities is of high interest, most of their activity remains unknown to the general public.

Some Features of the Private Cyber Surveillance Market

The private cyber surveillance market provides services to both private, as well as public entities.

Private customers may include organizations and individuals who are looking to gather information about their business competitors or other rivalries. Government and other states' officials are typically interested in using cyber surveillance for fighting terrorism and other types of criminal conduct; however, as we are every so often informed, state actors are also using these services for surveilling human rights activists, journalists, political opponents and even "ordinary" citizens and other individuals. The process of hiring these private cyber-spies is usually done "under the radar", without any official tenders or some other type of public process.

Another aspect of this rapidly emerging industry is that it is highly comprised of former military and other national security officials. Thus, people who obtained their technological knowledge and expertise while serving their country, subsequently might use the acquired knowledge in the global private market.

Concerns of Massive Human Rights Infringements

It can certainly be argued, that this is not a new phenomenon – the sale of weapons and technologies by private actors, even by former national security figures, is a long-standing and well-known routine.

Nonetheless, the impact of globally distributing cyber surveillance means could be much faster and more far reaching, while at the same time done under much confidentiality. Thus, in a world with no adequate restrictions and regulations on the cyber spyware market, it is now technically possible for an entire population to be easily surveilled over night by its government without (nearly) anyone knowing, while using the services of highly professional private entities.

This situation clearly creates serious concerns of massive infringements of fundamental human and civil rights, such as the rights to privacy; free speech; assemble; movement; and even life and bodily integrity. Various organizations around the world, including Citizen Lab, Privacy International, and others, are constantly trying to raise awareness to the matter and initiate change, without much success.

So What's Next?

In light of the aforesaid, one should ask: what is being done about this? The answer is, shortly, not much.

Thus, following his report on the Surveillance Industry and its Interference with Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression has recently called for an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology until human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks are in place, while expressly indicating that surveillance tools are currently not subject to any effective global or national control.

One possible solution could be to hold the private entities accountable for any abuse of the spyware they provide. However, there are major difficulties in this regard. First, as an inherent feature of the cyber surveillance market, it is highly secretive, thus making it almost impossible to track and enforce. Furthermore, the providers of spyware often present their customers with some kind of a disclaimer, according to which the purchaser guarantees to use the equipment or services provided for legitimate purposes only, thus somewhat "immunizing" the provider's accountability.

Another option is to hold accountable the countries who allow the sale of cyber surveillance means from their territory and jurisdiction. However, it seems that many countries are quite reluctant (to say the least) to legislate and regulate against their own ability to provide and use cyber surveillance means, due to security, as well as commercial, reasons. As reality shows, the cyber surveillance market is a highly profitable and competitive field, as well as an area of mutual development and cooperation between different nations with varying common interests. Thus, the solution should not be expected to come from the international community any time soon.


Many suggest, and I tend to agree, that certain cyber surveillance means should be treated and regulated as weapons, with all that it entails.

Yet, it seems that at the moment, not much is done nor will be done, while too many powerful factors in the equation are benefiting from the current status. Thus, in accordance with current forecasts of the rise of the global cyber security market, it should be anticipated that in the near future far more advanced technologies will be accessed by increasingly more people around the world.


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r4 - 24 Nov 2019 - 04:24:33 - DonnaZamir
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