Amnesty International’s Israel division has demanded that the Defence Ministry revoke the licence of spyware firm NSO as a result of its links to Saudi Arabia were disclosed.
Amnesty made the appeal to the ministry two weeks ago after it was revealed that the firm had offered to sell a phone-hacking system to Saudi Arabia. However, the organisation’s demand was only revealed yesterday by Israeli daily Haaretz, which had itself first reported on NSO’s links to the Gulf regime.
Amnesty said that “NSO has gone out of control”, adding that since it has been proven NSO’s software has been used in “a series of egregious human rights violations”, the company’s export licence should be revoked.
Sources from the department of Israel’s Defence Ministry which oversees defence exports said “it was strict about granting licenses according to the law and that they could not discuss the existence of NSO’s licence for security reasons,” Haaretz added. In response, Amnesty said that it rejects this claim and intends to pursue legal action.
Earlier this week it was revealed that two NSO representatives met with Saudi officials on multiple occasions in 2017 to promote the company’s Pegasus software – which can be used to remotely infect a person’s mobile phone and then relay back data accessed by the device to those wishing to spy.
The two officials in question were believed to be Abdullah Al-Malihi, an associate of Prince Turki Al-Faisal – a former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services – and Nasser Al-Qahtani, who presented himself as the deputy of the current Saudi intelligence chief.
NSO is believed to have sold the technology to Saudi Arabia for a sum of $55 million. However, it is the timing of the deal that is seen as particularly significant – the deal was signed in the summer of 2017, a few months before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) began his purge of regime opponents and allegedly abducted Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri.
NSO has repeatedly made headlines in recent weeks as the extent of its dealings with questionable regimes has emerged. Earlier this month, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden disclosed that NSO’s Pegasus software had been used by Saudi Arabia to track and target Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the lead up to his murder inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. Addressing a conference in Tel Aviv via video link, Snowden explained: “How do they [Saudi Arabia] know what his [Khashoggi’s] plans were and that they needed to act against him? That knowledge came from the technology developed by NSO.”
“Such a level of recklessness […] actually starts costing lives,” Snowden added.
In October it was revealed that Saudi Arabia had also used Pegasus software to eavesdrop on 27-year-old Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz – a prominent critic of the Saudi government on social media – after he criticised Saudi Arabia’s handling of its diplomatic spat with Canada.
Amnesty International has itself been a victim of an attack by Pegasus software. The human rights organisation was targeted in June, with the organisation explaining: “A hacker tried to break into an unidentified staff member’s smartphone in early June by baiting the employee with a WhatsApp message about a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.” Amnesty added “it [had] traced the malicious link in the message to a network of sites tied to the NSO Group,” a claim confirmed by a report by Canada-based research group Citizen Lab.