The United Arab Emirates has reportedly been using an Israeli phone-hacking program to spy on several Arab figures, among them the Qatari emir, Lebanese prime minister and a Saudi prince.
The New York Times reported on Friday that Israeli software company NSO Group and affiliates had actively participated in cyber attacks on individuals sought by the UAE using the controversial Pegasus spyware to turn their smart phones into surveillance devices.
Two lawsuits have been filed against the company in Israel and Cyprus by a Qatari citizen as well as Mexican journalists and human rights activists who say they were targeted by the spyware.
Leaked emails submitted in the lawsuits show that the UAE signed a contract to license the NSO Group’s spyware as early as August 2013.
The Israeli company offered a pricey update of the spyware in 2014, leading Emirati officials to demand proof of value.
They asked whether they could use the program to tap figures like Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Lebanon’s current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Saudi prince Mutaib II bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the kingdom’s former national guard director and Abdulaziz al-Khamis, the editor of the London-based newspaper al-Arab.
Four days later, the Israeli firm sent back an email which included two recordings of Khamis’ phone calls.
An Amnesty International staff member has been targeted by Israeli-made spyware.
Pegasus infects a target’s smart phone by sending a text message tempting him to click on an attached link. The user’s click on the link enables governments to monitor phone calls, emails, contacts and potentially even face-to-face conversations conducted nearby.
For the UAE, the text messages were carefully tailored with “seemingly innocuous invitations like ‘Ramadan is near – incredible discounts’ and ‘keep you car tires from exploding in the heat,” the report said.
Israeli lawyer Alaa Mahajna said, “We are pushing to make the law catch up with technology” and prove that tech companies “are complicit in these privacy violations.”
The UAE’s use of the NSO Group’s spyware was first reported in 2016, when Emirati human rights advocate Ahmed Mansoor exposed an attempt to hack his iPhone. He was later arrested in 2017 for online posts and still remains in jail.
On Friday, a source at the Qatari Foreign Ministry condemned attempts to spy on the Persian Gulf country’s officials and called on those developing spywares to abide by international law.
He also urged the international community to regulate digital activities so that it does not turn into a breeding ground for espionage.
“This revelation reflects the serious problems the foreign-policy makers in Abu Dhabi are suffering from. It raises several questions about the roots of the ongoing Persian Gulf crisis,” the source said.
“The current Persian Gulf crisis started with the hacking of the Qatar News Agency (QNA) and today these media reports indicate that the series of violations pre-date hacking of QNA and are still continuing.”
Last June, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE imposed a land, naval and air blockade on import-dependent Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism, an allegation strongly denied by Doha.
The Saudi-led bloc presented Qatar with a list of demands and gave it an ultimatum to comply with them or face consequences.
Doha, however, refused to meet the demands and stressed that it would not abandon its independent foreign policy.
Separately on Friday, a source familiar with the lawsuits, told The Daily Star that the cases were meant to expose rights violations committed by Israeli companies.
“We are asking for an injunction to stop this company and all of its affiliates from selling this product to specific countries.” he said. “They [spyware companies] say they just sell systems, but there is evidence of further involvement.”