Legal Threat Looms Over Israeli Cyber Firm Accused of Helping Saudi Spies

By Dell Cameron on at

Amnesty International said today that it had submitted a formal request to Israeli authorities two weeks ago asking that the export license of a Herzliya-based hacking firm be revoked over reported efforts to sell Saudi Arabia sophisticated surveillance software.

The Israeli Defence Ministry reportedly declined the request, prompting Amnesty to consider legal action instead.

In August, the human rights organisation claimed one of its members had been targeted via WhatsApp by a hostile government using Pegasus, a powerful surveillance tool developed by Israeli hacking firm NSO Group.

NSO’s spyware, which it markets to foreign governments, can be used to steal photos and messages, monitor calls and track keystrokes, and access smartphone cameras. Devices are typically infected through transmission of a malicious link. Pegasus was previously used against investigators in Mexico probing the disappearance of 43 students in the city of Iguala, the New York Times reported.

“Amnesty International will not stand idly by as companies such as NSO Group profit from selling their invasive Pegasus software to repressive states around the world”, said Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty International Tech.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Saudi officials expressed interest in and were offered access to NSO Group’s espionage tools during a series of 2017 meetings.

Haaretz reported this Sunday:

In the Vienna meeting of April 2017, the Saudis presented a list of 23 systems they sought to acquire. Their main interest was cybersystems. For a few dozens of millions of dollars, they would be able to hack into the phones of regime opponents in Saudi Arabia and around the world and collect classified information about them.

The newspaper also cited American whistleblower and Moscow resident Edward Snowden, who has claimed Pegasus was used to surveil Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post reporter who was assassinated and dismembered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.

Other sources, including Citizen Lab, a research centre at the University of Toronto, recently presented evidence that Pegasus was used to target multiple Saudi dissidents with ties to Khashoggi, according to Forbes.

A spokesperson for NSO Group could not be immediately reached for comment, but the company has denied any wrongdoing, saying its products are used to combat crime and terrorism.

“NSO Group’s software has been used to attack Amnesty staff and fellow human rights defenders globally,” said Ingleton. “As the Israeli Ministry of Defence refused our request to revoke the export license, it is clear that we now need to take additional legal steps to expose the truth and seek accountability for the attack against us.”