Shane Harris, Washington Post - The Security Impact of Cyber Mercenaries

Shane Harris, Washington Post
The Security Impact of Cyber Mercenaries


One of the most damaging developments of the late 20th Century was the seemingly unstoppable spread of weapons, and of people skilled in both making and using them.  This dispersal of ever-more-portable, ever-more-powerful firepower was problematic enough when it was more or less limited to nation-states and their official armed forces.

By the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, people with those skills were joining what are called “non-state actors” – organized crime groups and political or religious terrorist units, – setting up workshops for DIY guns, rifles, bombs and launch platforms like drones that were difficult to detect, and even harder to bring under control.

Now, the privatization and dispersal of cyber-warfare has followed those old-fashioned uses of brute force in becoming increasingly widespread and decreasingly restrained by the rule of international law.  This development had been long predicted, by among others, our guest today, Shane Harris in his rave-reviewed 2014 book “@War.”   At the end of January 2019, the Reuters investigative reporters Christopher Bing and Joel Schectman broke a story that showed American-trained cyber-warriors had left U.S. government service and were working as private contractors for the intelligence service of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  Sources, both off and on the record, told Bing and Schectman that their new bosses were not only using cyber-surveillance to crush human rights and political dissent within the UAE, they were snooping on at least three American journalists.

The contractors said they thought their – they now thought inappropriate – work had been approved by the U.S. National Security Agency and the State Department, but officially, at least, not so.  The whole Operation Raven, as the UAE named it, is now reported to be under U.S. government investigation.

It’s not just former workers from U.S. security agencies who are working as cyber-mercenaries or who have become freelance suppliers of state-of-the-art surveillance technology to states like the UAE and Mexico, but recent investigations by the research group Citizen Lab in Toronto and the Associated Press suggest cyber-surveillance and security services are now being bought and sold by private corporations.

The logic of the cyber-mercenary marketplace is obvious.  More and more people are being trained in more and more uses of cyber-military technology.  Not all of them stay in government jobs forever.  Many transition to the private sector and what happens then, is close to inevitable, which doesn’t make it any the less threatening.



Shane Harris is a staff writer with the Washington Post, covering intelligence and national security. He has previously written about these topics at The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, and National Journal. Shane is the author of two books, The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State (Penguin Press, 2010) and @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex (Eamon Dolan /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). He graduated from Wake Forest University in 1998. He lives in Washington, DC.Honors & Awards:

Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, 2010

Helen Bernstein Book Award For Excellence In Journalism, 2011




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