Weeks ago NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was the first to reveal that Saudi Arabia used Israeli spyware to target murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, accusing a Tel Aviv-based compmany called NSO Group of “selling a digital burglary tool,” adding it “is not just being used for catching criminals and stopping terrorist attacks, not just for saving lives, but for making money… such a level of recklessness... actually starts costing lives.”
This has now been confirmed in detail by a new bombshell investigative report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which outlines how NSO Group representatives met with Saudi intelligence officials in Vienna in 2017 in order to demonstrate the powerful and easy hacking capability of its advanced Pagasus 3 system, which using a mere SIM card number can turn a person's phone into an all-purpose spying device sweeping up the user's voice conversations, camera, messages, and social media usage.
Among the first requests the Saudi delegation made of NSO while negotiating a $55 million deal to procure the technology was that the company help Riyadh uncover the true identities behind dissident Saudi Twitter accounts. The June 2017 deal for the hacking tool came just months before crown prince Mohammed bin Salman's infamous purge which would see multiple dozens of princes and top officials rounded up and imprisoned in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel the following November, which also involved the days-long detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.
These latest revelations originated in a complaint to Israeli police now under investigation involving at least one company-linked whistleblower who thinks the Saudis used NSO's hacking tool to track down and ultimately murder dissidents.
Haaretz confirmed the secret deal with Saudi intelligence "based on testimony and photos, as well as travel and legal documents". This comes at a sensitive moment when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become increasingly vocal over his desire to deepen ties with Gulf states, especially by supplying advanced Israeli technology.
One among a series of meetings documented included a who's who of top Saudi intelligence officials. According to Haaretz:
Arriving at the hotel were Abdullah al-Malihi, a close associate of Prince Turki al-Faisal – a former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services – and another senior Saudi official, Nasser al-Qahtani, who presented himself as the deputy of the current intelligence chief. Their interlocutors were two Israeli businessmen, representatives of NSO, who presented to the Saudis highly advanced technology.
Apparently the Saudi delegation was awed by the ease of use hacking tool after a successful demonstration which involved the following:
During the June 2017 meeting, NSO officials showed a PowerPoint presentation of the system’s capabilities. To demonstrate it, they asked Qahtani to go to a nearby mall, buy an iPhone and give them its number. During that meeting they showed how this was enough to hack into the new phone and record and photograph the participants in the meeting.
NSO, which Edward Snowden has dubbed "the worst of the worst" in terms of aiding and abetting human rights violations, is now under fire especially as evidence proves the company knew full well the technology would be used by Saudi authorities not for disrupting terror attacks or criminal activities, but for purging political dissent.
Haaretz confirms reports by @Citizenlab showing Saudi Arabia's purge of regime opponents was fueled by the #NSO group, an out of control Israeli hacking company. Before Khashoggi's murder, three of his contacts were targeted by SA using NSO's burglary kit. https://t.co/PkUcAsuGUu— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) November 25, 2018
The purchase of Pegasus 3 also appears part of a broader regime blitz to acquire pervasive and powerful spying technology at a time when MbS was preparing to consolidate his power after next in line Muhammad bin Nayef was deposed by King Salman.
The Haaretz report reveals how far the Saudis were willing to go:
In the Vienna meeting of April 2017, the Saudis presented a list of 23 systems they sought to acquire. Their main interest was cybersystems. For a few dozens of millions of dollars, they would be able to hack into the phones of regime opponents in Saudi Arabia and around the world and collect classified information about them.
According to the European businessman, the Saudis, already at the first meeting, passed along to the representatives of one of the companies details of a Twitter account of a person who had tweeted against the regime. They wanted to know who was behind the account, but the Israeli company refused to say.
Currently, NSO has denied the Haaretz report as well as Edward Snowden's accusations, calling its contents full of "partial rumors and gossip" and also claiming to be in conformity with "all matters relating to export policies and licenses," according to a statement.
Pegasus' use worldwide, according to Citizen Lab:
Meanwhile, Snowden has subsequently pointed out: "Journalists working this story should note that none of NSO Group's many, many statements made after the Khashoggi murder deny selling their digital weaponry to Saudi Arabia," and added, "Every country in which this company has operated should be pressured to open criminal investigations."
Given that we do know that Saudi Arabia and Israel have grown increasingly close in a historically unprecedented covert intelligence sharing partnership over the past at least one year, it's likely that the Pegasus 3 spyware revelations are merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what defense technology has already been shared.
We expect to see many more such stories come to light as international media continues its rare scrutiny of MbS and the Saudi regime.