Israel approved the sale of cyber-espionage technology from Herzliya-based NSO Group to Saudi Arabia in order to hack dissidents and enemies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to a report Friday citing former US officials.
The report in the Washington Post about the sale of the Pegasus system to Riyadh comes days after Omar Abdulaziz, a sharp online critic of the Saudi royals who lives in exile in Canada, filed suit in Tel Aviv against NSO, claiming that communications between him and murdered writer Jamal Khashoggi were monitored by the Saudis using NSO software.
According to the Post’s David Ignatius, Saudi official Saud al-Qahtani sought Pegasus as part of a surveillance network designed to help the crown prince combat internal enemies as part of his drive for power.
Two unnamed former US officials told the newspaper that Israel approved the sale of Pegasus technology to the Saudis, despite misgivings by some in Israel about selling highly sensitive technology to an Arab country that does not have ties with Jerusalem.
The sale was seen as part of a push in Israel to grow closer to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries as part of an anti-Iran alliance and also to expand intelligence sharing in the region.
Because of the nature of the product, sales of Pegasus technology are subject to approval by the Defense Ministry’s Defense Export Control Agency.
The Defense Ministry says it is “meticulous” in granting export licenses, but has declined to comment on its policies when asked about sales of Pegasus, citing security concerns.
According to the Post, the sale was partially funneled through a shadowy NSO subsidiary in Luxembourg called Q Cyber Technologies.
A lawyer for NSO and Q Cyber Technologies refused to confirm or deny the sale. “They’re a supplier of a product. The customer makes representations that the product will be used in a way that’s lawful in that country. Obviously, there are sometimes abuses,” the attorney stated to the paper.
NSO has pushed back against reports that Pegasus was used by the Saudis to track Khashoggi before he was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
In a statement to The Times of Israel last week, NSO called the lawsuit from Abdulaziz “completely unfounded.” It claimed the suit was based on inaccurate “press clippings” and showed “no evidence that the company’s technology was used.”
According to the lawsuit from Abdulaziz, he clicked on a link sent to his phone in June 2018 that exposed his mobile communications to Saudi authorities.
“The lawsuit proves that by using this technology, Saudi Arabia succeeded to follow after Jamal Khashoggi and his interactions with Omar Abdulaziz,” said Alaa Mahajna, a lawyer for the Saudi dissident.
The lawsuit says Abdulaziz was notified that his phone was compromised by internet watchdog Citizen Lab. It cites news reports and other sources claiming that NSO Group sold Saudi Arabia the technology in 2017 for $55 million.
Abdulaziz is demanding about $160,000 in damages and an order preventing NSO from selling its technology to Saudi Arabia.
The NSO Group’s smartphone-hacking technology has emerged as a favorite for authorities seeking to crush dissent across the Middle East and Latin America.
The Israeli firm’s software is part of a larger family of malware that allows spies to take remote control of phones from anywhere in the world — turning the devices in targets’ pockets into powerful surveillance tools.
The company says its products “are licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime in the modern age.”
The secretive company rarely speaks to the media, does not publicly identify its customers and does not even have a website.
But a person familiar with NSO told the Associated Press that the company keeps tight oversight over its sales. He said the company will not do business with 21 countries, including Russia, China and Turkey, as well as many others blocked by the Defense Ministry.
He also said NSO has an “ethics committee” that includes human rights experts and former US officials that must vet every sale. He said the committee has blocked over $100 million in deals over the past three years, though he declined to elaborate. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing inside corporate information.
The company says it does not assist its customers in the actual monitoring process. But the person familiar with NSO said the company has a number of safeguards to prevent misuse of its products.
For instance, it can restrict in which countries the product will work, and it limits how many people can be targeted by Pegasus. He estimated that at any given time, there are no more than 150 to 200 “targets” among all of its customers worldwide.
“We do not tolerate misuse of our products. If there is suspicion of misuse, we investigate it and take the appropriate actions, including suspending or terminating a contract,” an NSO statement said.
NSO has been under the spotlight for months as dissidents, journalists and other opposition figures have claimed the company’s technology has been used by repressive governments to spy on them.
These include Mexican and Qatari journalists who have already filed lawsuits against the company and an Amnesty International employee who was allegedly targeted by the software.
Itay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer who is highly critical of Israeli weapons exports, said the Defense Ministry has notoriously lax policies for the lucrative industry, giving Israel an advantage over competitors.
“What Israel is offering is no limitations,” he said. He noted that when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited in September, for example, he praised the ease of buying Israeli weapons. “It’s the same story with spyware,” Mack said.
Mack filed a court petition last year to halt NSO’s use of its technology in Mexico after reports that it was being used to target human rights activists, lawyers and journalists. The court ruling remains under a gag order.
Any possible use of Israeli technology to police dissent in the Arab world could raise uncomfortable questions both for Israel, which still sees itself as a bastion of democracy in the region, and for countries with no formal diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently boasts of warming ties with Arab states, in what is widely seen as a reference to Saudi Arabia. Last month, Netanyahu paid a landmark visit to the Gulf state of Oman. He has promised that there will soon be additional announcements.
On Saturday, Israel’s Hadashot TV news reported that Netanyahu was seeking to formalize relations with Saudi Arabia, and hopes to make ties official and public before the next Israeli general election in November.
The report said the US and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen were involved in the diplomatic effort, though no further details were provided.
But any Israeli connection to the Khashoggi killing — even indirect or unintentional — could complicate Netanyahu’s strategy.
Netanyahu reportedly urged Washington not to abandon its support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
A report in The Washington Post said Netanyahu told Trump administration officials that bin Salman was a key strategic partner and a linchpin of the alliance against Iranian encroachment in the region.
In public comments on the death of Khashoggi, the Israeli leader called the killing “horrendous” but stressed that “it is very important for the stability of the region and the world that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”