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Spyware developed in Israel used by Saudis to hack London-based dissident

May 29, 2019 at 1:41 pm

Saudi dissident satirist Ghanem Almasarir can be seen outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London calling for justice for Jamal Khashoggi on 24 October 2018 [ROBIN MILLARD/AFP/Getty Images]

The software created by an Israeli spyware firm used, apparently, in the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has become embroiled in a hacking scandal involving a Saudi dissident. The latest victim is London-based satirist Ghanem Almasarir, who has been attacked on the streets of the British capital by men appearing to be loyal to Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

According to a letter of claim giving notice of possible legal action, which the Guardian claims has been sent to the Kingdom, Almasarir was targeted by Saudi Arabia with malware developed by a controversial Israeli firm, the NSO Group. The spyware infiltrates smartphones and monitors calls, texts, email and contacts, and can use the device’s microphone and camera for surveillance.

The company in question is famous for manufacturing the notorious Pegasus spyware. In a separate scandal involving the Israeli firm, it is thought that NSO’s software took advantage of a loophole on WhatsApp, which the latter was still working to fix as late as last weekend. WhatsApp is now urging its 1.5 billion global users to update the app on their devices to reduce the risk of further attacks.

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The letter of claim suggests that the same tactics were being used to target Almasarir. According to the Guardian, he received suspicious text messages in June last year. These were tracked by independent experts to a Pegasus operator who was “focused on Saudi Arabia” and were linked to a separate attack against another Saudi critic.

“A vast amount of Mr Almasarir’s private information was stored and communicated on his iPhones… This included information relating to his personal life, his family, his relationships, his health, his finances, and private matters relating to his work promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia,” the letter of claim states.

Speaking to the Guardian, the dissident said: “We use the space of freedom in the west, in Europe and America and the Saudis want to take this freedom away from us by making me and others feeling like we are living in prison.”

Saudi officials have not responded to requests for comment on the allegations against Riyadh, the latest of which comes within weeks of a plot uncovered by the CIA of potential threats to a Palestinian activist living in Norway. Iyad El-Baghdadi, a pro-democracy activist and critic of Bin Salman, was alerted to the threat on 25 April when the Norwegian authorities moved him to a secure location.

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The incident will raise further questions over the way in which Israeli hacking software programmes are being used by repressive regimes to target dissidents and activists across the world. Such activities, which are regarded as an assault on free speech and democracy, have become a major source of concern. Amnesty, which was also targeted, has described the Israeli firm of being “out of control”, citing its role in “a series of egregious human rights violations.”