A few years ago, an American defense consultant I know told me about a trip he took to Uzbekistan. His role there was to help sell technology that the Uzbek government could use to spy on its own citizens. He eventually shared with me the marketing material he’d presented to the Uzbek government. One glossy brochure featured technology that could not just intercept phone calls, but identify the caller, regardless of what phone number they were using, based on their unique voiceprint, and then identify their exact geographic location.
And yet, tools of surveillance that an authoritarian regime could use to spy on its own citizens, on dissidents, on journalists, that, according to the US government today, is not a weapon. And yet, these tools of surveillance are part of a growing secretive multi-billion-dollar industry.
The Israeli-based company NSO Group has reportedly sold its technology to the regime in Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of harassing, and even, in one case, killing one of its political opponents. And we do think of weapons as things that kill people. But in the information age, some of the most powerful weapons are things that can track and identify us.