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Second Israel firm exposed providing hacking services to Saudi

September 17, 2020 at 2:56 pm

A woman using her phone in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 13 February 2012 [REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed]

An Israeli firm provided phone hacking services to Saudi Arabia, a new investigation by Haaretz has uncovered in a detailed report exposing the cosy relation between some of the worst human rights abusing regimes in the world and Israeli companies.

The report follows the activities of Cellebrite, which is one of a number of Israeli firms that provides hacking or other cybersecurity services to the Saudi kingdom. Exposing the cosy relations between the two parties, Haaretz recounted a hacking incident from last November.

A representative of the Israeli firm is said to have landed at King Khaled International Airport in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, arriving on a commercial flight from London to hack into a phone in the possession of the Saudi Justice Ministry. The details of the visit were agreed upon before the hacker landed.

Cellebrite staff demanded to be met at Riyadh airport by a government representative. Saudis also met other demands such as allowing Cellebrite staff member to pass through passport control without his passport being stamped and without an inspection of the electronic equipment that he would have with him.

It was agreed in advance that the hacker would be immediately taken to an isolated hotel room, where the Saudis pledged not to install cameras – and where the job of hacking and copying information from a mobile phone was carried out. When the work was completed, Cellebrite’s representative returned to the airport and flew back to London.

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Cellebrite is said to be unique because of its ability to extract information from devices that are in its clients’ physical possession. Its technology can be used for military and homeland security-related purposes. The company’s technology is said to not only make it possible to hack into smartphones and to copy all of the information on them, it is also able to reconstruct information that has been deleted from a device.

Cellebrite reportedly supplied its service to the Saudis at the same time as when a group of about 15 assassins murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul two years ago. His body was then disposed of in an operation carried out at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

While no evidence was cited to suggest Cellebrite technology was used to target Khashoggi, there was spotlight on a second Israeli firm, NSO Group. Software developed by the Israeli spyware firm was used to hack the phone of a member of Khashoggi’s inner circle which allowed Saudi security officials to track him.

Clients of Cellebrite, which claims to assist security services in 150 countries, include regimes that have faced political protests, including Hong Kong, where China backed police have violently clamped down on freedom of political expression. Cellebrite supplied services to the Hong Kong police before protests began, but the company’s technology has continued to serve the police.