Algeria launches probe of NSO spyware claim; Saudi Arabia, UAE deny allegations

Algiers prosecutor orders investigation into reports country was target of Israeli-made Pegasus malware; Gulf nations dismiss ‘false’ reports they used program to spy on dissidents

Illustrative. An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, on August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)
Illustrative. An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, on August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)

Algeria’s public prosecutor has ordered an investigation into media reports that the North African country may have been the target of the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware, it said in a statement on Thursday.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dismissed allegations they used Pegasus malware to spy on journalists and human rights activists.

News outlets including Le Monde and the Washington Post had reported on Sunday that the software, developed by Israeli firm NSO Group, had been used by governments to spy on activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians around the world.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among several governments accused of using Pegasus spyware to monitor the activities of dissidents and other critics.

The bombshell claims were based on a document leaked to Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media nonprofit, and Amnesty International, containing 50,000 telephone numbers of people identified as potential targets via Pegasus between 2016 and June 2021.

Many numbers on the list were clustered in 10 countries including Morocco, Algeria’s neighbor and political rival.

Algerian Prime Minister Aimane Benabderrahmane speaks in Algiers, on August 12 2020. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

Thousands of Algerian telephone numbers — including some belonging to top political and military figures — were listed as potential targets of the spyware, according to TSA, a French-language Algerian news website.

Morocco and Algeria have repeatedly sparred over the disputed region of Western Sahara, which Morocco considers an integral part of its territory while Algeria backs the pro-independence Polisario movement.

Morocco said on Monday it “categorically rejects” claims its intelligence services used Pegasus to monitor critics at home and abroad.

It also filed a defamation claim against Amnesty International and the French NGO, due to allegations its intelligence services used Pegasus against dozens of French journalists, lawyers for the government said Thursday.

A statement by the UAE’s foreign ministry on Thursday said “allegations … claiming that the UAE is amongst a number of countries accused of alleged surveillance targeting journalists and individuals have no evidentiary basis.”

Such allegations “are categorically false,” it added.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, attends a ceremony with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at Qasr Al Watan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 27, 2019. (Mohamed Al Hammadi/Ministry of Presidential Affairs via AP)

Saudi Arabia’s official SPA news agency reported late Wednesday that “a Saudi official denied the recent allegations reported in media outlets that an entity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia used software to monitor phone calls.”

“The source added that such allegations are untrue, and that KSA’s policies do not condone such practices.”

Israel’s NSO Group and its Pegasus malware — capable of switching on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvesting its data — have been in the headlines since 2016, when researchers accused it of helping spy on a dissident in the UAE.

A giant of Israeli tech with 850 employees, NSO insists its software is only intended for use in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and that any other use is the work of “rogue” operators.

Those claims are rubbished by human rights group Amnesty International.

“NSO’s spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril,” Amnesty chief Agnes Callamard said in a statement.

The ‘Digital Violence: How the NSO Group Enables State Terror’ platform that details the operations of Israeli startup NSO Group (Courtesy)

The UAE normalized its relations with Israel in a US-brokered deal last year, but regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia still has no formal ties with the Jewish state.

Last year, in the wake of the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE, the Haaretz daily reported that the Israeli government officially mediated the sale of Pegasus spyware to the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Ras Al-Khaimah, as well as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel approves export of technology only to governments “exclusively for the purposes of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism.”

He said Israel was studying recent publications on the subject.

The Defense Ministry has vowed that “appropriate action” would be taken if it found NSO Group violated its export license terms.

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