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Saudi Arabia used Israel spyware against dissident

Saudi Arabia used Israeli technology to spy on a Saudi dissident in Canada, a report has claimed.

According to a report by Canada-based research group Citizen Lab, Saudi Arabia used Israeli software to eavesdrop on 27-year-old Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz. Citizen Lab claims “the aim was to access the iPhone of Abdulaziz, who […] has been a prominent critic of the Saudi government on social media,” Haaretz reported.

Speaking to Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, Citizen Lab’s Director Ron Deibert explained that “any such use of eavesdropping technology by a foreign government would constitute illegal wiretapping.”

The software in question – Pegasus – belongs to Israeli company NSO Group which specialises in cyber intelligence. Pegasus “can be used to remotely infect a target’s cellphone in order to then relay back data accessed by the device,” the Globe and Mail explains. It adds that: “The Citizen Lab studied the NSO Group by attempting to reverse-engineer the specific Internet pathways that its software uses. It was through these efforts that the Citizen Lab said it noticed an iPhone in Canada in contact with the surveillance infrastructure that the group associated with Saudi Arabia.”

This is not the first time that Citizen Lab has found Pegasus software to be used by governments that do not formally recognise Israel. In September, a Citizen Lab report observed a “significant expansion of Pegasus usage in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in the Middle East,” in particular the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Citizen Lab added that in August 2016, Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was targeted with the Pegasus spyware.

The same technology was also used to target human rights group Amnesty International in June. Amnesty explained how “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 Citizen Lab’s September report.

The Saudi dissident in question, Omar Abdulaziz, in August claimed that Saudi authorities had threatened to arrest his family if he did not stop writing about the Kingdom’s conflict with Canada. Abdulaziz wrote on Twitter: “Breaking: The Saudi authorities threatened to arrest my brothers and friends if I keep tweeting about the Saudi-Canadian crisis!” Abdulaziz has resided in Canada since 2009, when he obtained a scholarship to study English. However, after becoming increasingly critical of the Saudi government and its human rights record, Abdulaziz applied for and was granted political asylum in Canada.

The hacking of Omar Abdulaziz’s phone, believed to have been conducted between June and August, will do nothing to alleviate the ongoing diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada. The row broke out after the Canadian embassy in Riyadh called on Saudi Arabia to immediately release human rights activists detained in the Kingdom. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia accused Canada of interfering in its internal affairs, recalled its ambassador from Ottawa and expelled the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh. Saudi Arabia also froze new trade and investment in Canada, but stressed that its oil supplies to the north American country would not be impacted.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his country’s position, refusing to apologise to Saudi Arabia. The spat is yet to be resolved, though last week Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she hoped to meet her Saudi counterpart, Adel Al-Jubeir, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings. Freeland noted: “Canada is extending an olive branch to Saudi Arabia to avoid a prolonged diplomatic crisis that affected Canadian companies and Saudi students in Canadian universities.”
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