Israeli software is being used to spy on pro-democracy activists in the United Arab Emirates, a report from a team based at the University of Toronto has revealed.

Pegasus – a secretive programme designed by Israeli firm NSO Group, which sells surveillance equipment – uses flaws in phones to target political dissidents in the Emirates by hacking into devices to record communications.

A report by Citizen Lab, based in the United States, detailed the cyber offensive, describing how Pegasus allows its operator to record calls and intercept messaging, bypassing encryption. It can even turn a phone’s camera and microphone on, and read emails and contacts lists. It is reportedly used in countries such as Mexico, to target investigative journalists.

NSO Group, which is believed to be owned by an American venture capital group, said its “mission is to make the world a safer place by providing authorised governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime,” adding that it had no knowledge of specific cases in which its software was used.

NSO co-founder Omri Lavie has previously said: “We’re a complete ghost… We’re totally transparent to the target, and we leave no traces.”