Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and other authoritarian governments have reportedly acquired cybertools used by Western law enforcement and have been using them to hack and harass dissidents.
Researchers have found that since the early 2000s, companies like Verint and Nice Systems have sold mass surveillance products to the secret police in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Associated Press reported.
Israeli technicians from both companies have rotated in and out of Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, for tech support and maintenance.
That equipment has allowed Uzbek secret police to quickly locate and arrest people who discuss sensitive information on the phone or via e-mail, including a dissident Uzbek blogger, the dissidents say.
"The authorities' main weapon is people's fear," Tulkin Karayev, an Uzbek exile in Sweden, told AP. "Freedom of speech, freedom of expression -- all this is banned."
Over the past two decades, Uzbekistan has "imprisoned thousands to enforce repressive rule," Human Rights Watch reported last year. The price of dissent is arbitrary detention, forced labor, and torture, the group said.
But there is little to stop governments that routinely violate basic rights from obtaining the same so-called "lawful intercept" tools that have been sold to Western police and spy agencies, AP said. People tracked by the technology have been beaten, jailed, and tortured, according to human rights groups.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that hackers believed to be working on behalf of the Kazakhstan government tried to infect the computers of lawyers and other associates of exiled dissidents with spyware.
The hacking campaign involved physical surveillance and threats of violence, in a rare instance of cyberattacks coming alongside real-world crimes, Reuters said.
A research team examined e-mails sent to a group that included New York human rights lawyer Peter Sahlas; Italian attorney Astolfo Di Amato, who is involved in a legal dispute with Kazakhstan; and exiled Kazakhstan publishers Irina Petrushova and Alexander Petrushov, both of whom fled Kazakhstan years ago.
The e-mails tried to trick recipients into installing one of two types of commercially available spy software and were likely sent by an Indian company hired for the job.
The pair of exiled Kazakh publishers produce the online newspaper Respublika, which has printed leaked or hacked e-mails from the government.
"We suspect that the use of malware by governments to spy on political dissidents, especially exiles who live outside of their government's direct sphere of influence, is increasingly common," the research team concluded.
With reporting by AP and Reuters