Report: Israeli spyware used to track Khashoggi messages, lawsuit charges

Israel considers the "Pegasus" spyware a weapon and requires NSO Group to obtain approval from the Defense Ministry to sell it. Saudi Arabia spent $55 million last year on it.

December 3, 2018 15:50
2 minute read.
Jamal Khashoggi

Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London Britain, September 29, 2018. Picture taken September 29, 2018. (photo credit: MIDDLE EAST MONITOR)


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Israeli software company NSO Group designed and sold software to the Saudi government that directly led to the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a newly filed lawsuit, the New York Times reported on Monday.

Monday’s lawsuit was filed by Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who said his WhatsApp messages with Khashoggi were intercepted by the government and used to justify Khashoggi’s killing. In messages obtained by CNN, Khashoggi called Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “beast” who eats his victims and oppresses citizens.

Two similar lawsuits were filed last week against NSO by activists who were targeted by the company. NSO’s “Pegasus” spyware permits users to listen to calls; read messages and internet activity; and record subjects through their phone camera and microphone.

Israel considers it a weapon and requires NSO to obtain approval from the Defense Ministry to sell it. Saudi Arabia spent $55 million last year on the spyware, the Times said.

NSO responded to the lawsuit with a statement, calling it completely unfounded.

“Our products are licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime in the modern age,” the statement reads. “We take an extremely scrupulous approach to the licensing of our products – which are only provided after a full vetting and licensing by the Israeli government.”

The statement goes on to say that, “In addition, products supplied by NSO are operated by the government customer to whom they were supplied, without the involvement of NSO or its employees.”

Amnesty International is also working to revoke the export license of the company after asserting that NSO’s “Pegasus” spyware was used to target its staff.

“The mountain of evidence and reports on NSO Group and the sale of its spyware to human rights-violating regimes is substantial proof that NSO has gone rogue,” Molly Malekar, programs director of Amnesty International Israel, said in a statement.

Abdulaziz’s claim was corroborated by Edward Snowden, the famed US whistleblower who leaked information about Washington spying on American citizens. Speaking in Israel via video-conference, Snowden declared that NSO sold a "digital burglary tool."

He said NSO’s software was used to track Khashoggi and eventually murder him. The intercepted messages between Khashoggi and Abdulaziz also contained plans for an opposition project against the government.

The lawsuit criticizes the Israeli government’s sale of the NSO spyware as well as its friendly alliance with Saudi Arabia. Abdulaziz is a Saudi who sought asylum in Canada and is a popular social media influencer who criticizes the Saudi regime.

Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and dismembered in October. The American intelligence community concluded that bin Salman commanded the killing which he has denied, calling it instead the work of independent agents.

“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.

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