Israeli journalists have revealed that a representatives of an Israeli spyware company met senior Saudi officials shortly before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a crackdown on his opponents.
An investigation by Ha’aretz based on testimony, photos, travel and legal documents has shown how NSO Group Technologies offered the Saudis software that can hack opponents’ phones without a link being clicked.
The advanced software, called Pegasus 3, is used to infiltrate and spy on phone users, and news of the Israelis’ involvement has raised concerns, especially in the aftermath of the gruesome killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Cyprus-registered NSO, whose development headquarters is in Herzliya, was founded by Shalev Julio and Omri Lavi. It said that it had always acted within the law and that its products are used in the fight against crime and terror.
News of the meeting in Vienna last year comes as researchers revealed that Saudi internet authorities stepped up their censoring of news sites in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing, according to MIT Technology Review.
Bin Salman is Saudi Arabia’s powerful de facto ruler and Khashoggi – a US resident who wrote for The Washington Post – had been a fierce critic of the crown prince. The CIA is believed to have concluded that the young ruler ordered Khashoggi’s death, although the Saudis deny this.
News of NSO’s contact was in part revealed by a complaint to the Israel Police from a European businessman who says he was promised a five percent cut of the reported $55 million software sale by an Israeli businessman and his son. The businessman is now pursuing this through the courts. Neither have been named and the deal has not been verified, although the Israeli tax authorities are believed to be investigating.
Ha’aretz reported that the NSO representatives met Abdullah al-Malihi, a close associate of the former Saudi intelligence head Prince Turki al-Faisal, and Nasser al-Qahtani, who presented himself as the deputy of the current intelligence chief.
Activists around the world claim that NSO spyware is used against human rights campaigners and US whistle-blower Edward Snowden described the company as “the worst of the worst”.
NSO said it “operated and operates solely in compliance with defence export laws and under the guidelines and close oversight of all elements of the defence establishment, including all matters relating to export policies and licenses.”
It added: “The information presented by Ha’aretz about the company and its products and their use is wrong, based on partial rumours and gossip. The presentation distorts reality.”
The company said it has an independent and external ethics committee that “examines every deal so that the use of the system will take place only according to permitted objectives of investigating and preventing terror and crime”.
It added: “The company’s products assist law enforcement agencies in protecting people around the world from terror attacks, drug cartels, child kidnappers for ransom, paedophiles, and other criminals and terrorists.
“In contrast to newspaper reports, the company does not sell its products or allow their use in many countries. Moreover, the company greatly limits the extent to which its customers use its products and is not involved in the operation of the systems by customers.”