Mesay Mekonnen was at his desk, at a news service based in Northern Virginia, when gibberish suddenly exploded across his computer screen one day in December. A sophisticated cyber­attack was underway. But this wasn’t the Chinese army or the Russian mafia at work. Instead, a nonprofit research lab has fingered government hackers in a much less technically advanced nation, Ethi­o­pia, as the likely culprits, saying they apparently used commercial spyware, essentially bought off the shelf. This burgeoning industry is making surveillance capabilities that once were the exclusive province of the most elite spy agencies, such as National Security Agency, available to governments worldwide. The targets of such attacks often are political activists, human rights workers and journalists, who have learned that the Internet allows authoritarian governments to surveil and intimidate them even after they have fled to supposed safety.

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