Saudis Targeted Khashoggi With This Israeli Surveillance Tool
Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz, who is based in Montreal, filed a lawsuit in an Israeli court Sunday against Tel Aviv-based cyber intelligence company NSO Group for monitoring his messages with Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The company has denied accusations that its spyware played a role in Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October.
Researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto reported that Abdulaziz’s phone had been infected by NSO’s Pegasus spyware, which can access photos, phone calls and emails, as well as a user’s GPS location. The researchers had previously found possible Pegasus surveillance operations in 45 countries, including the United States.
“The hacking of my phone played a major role in what happened to Jamal, I am really sorry to say,” Abdulaziz told CNN. “The guilt is killing me.” He has requested $160,000 in damages and for NSO Group to stop selling its products to Saudi Arabia.
In 2014, American private equity firm Francisco Partners bought NSO for $130 million. Other critics of the Saudi regime who have been targeted with the Pegasus software include human rights activist Yahya Assiri and political satirist Ghanem Almasarir, both of whom are based in the United Kingdom.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden said in November that NSO surveilled Khashoggi. “The reality is that they bugged one of his few friends and contacts using software created by an Israeli company,” Snowden said. He described NSO as “the worst of the worst in selling these burglary tools that are being actively used to violate the human rights of dissidents, opposition figures, activists, to some pretty bad players.”
The Israeli Ministry of Defense approves each of NSO’s sales individually. Amnesty International is considering legal action to pressure the government to revoke NSO’s export license.
“Our findings paint a bleak picture of the human rights risks of NSO’s global proliferation,” Citizen Lab wrote. “At least six countries with significant Pegasus operations have previously been linked to abusive use of spyware to target civil society, including Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.”
The Pegasus software has been detected targeting a range of private citizens. In July, as Amnesty International urged Saudi Arabia to release six women’s rights activists who had been detained, a staff member was targeted with the Pegasus software. Last year, Citizen Lab reported that the Pegasus software had been used to target Mexican journalists and lawyers tracking government corruption and human rights abuses. Ahmed Mansoor, an activist in the United Arab Emirates who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for social media posts, was previously targeted with Pegasus as well.
“We have example, after example, after example of this software being used to harass and threaten activists around the world,” Amnesty International’s Danna Ingleton said. “They’re using national security as an excuse for acting outside the law.”