UAE uses Israeli software in effort to spy on Qatari, Saudi leaders

Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. (James N. Mattis / Flickr

The United Arab Emirates used Israeli technology in attempts to spy on Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a Saudi prince, The New York Times has reported.

The malware, called Pegasus, is made by the Israeli cyber warfare company NSO Group and is only sold to governments.

The Israeli technology hacks smartphones by sending the targeted device a compelling message that contains a link. If the recipient clicks on the link, the system installs sophisticated malware on the device that can go undetected and send a frightening amount of data to those doing the spying.

Data that can be obtained through Pegasus includes locations, recordings, screenshots, email and text messages, passwords and photographs.

The New York Times does not say if the UAE’s efforts to spy on the leaders of rival states succeeded or what information was obtained.

Approved by Israel

The UAE signed a contract to license the malware as early as August 2013. The deal is likely to have been worth around $18 million.

“The NSO Group and its affiliates could have sold it to the Emirates only with approval by the Israeli defense ministry,” The New York Times reported.

The software was updated the next year at a cost of $11 million, according to information The New York Times obtained through leaked invoices and emails concerning two lawsuits filed in Cyprus and Israel against NSO Group.

The lawsuits accuse the company of participating in illegal spying. They were filed by “a Qatari citizen and by Mexican journalists and activists who were all targeted by the company’s spyware,” according to The New York Times.

When the UAE was offered an update, the government wanted to test it before buying.

To impress its Emirati client, the Israeli company recorded two phone calls that Saudi journalist Abdulaziz Alkhamis made, and sent the data to Emirati officials. Alkhamis confirmed to The New York Times that the phone calls did in fact take place and that he was not aware of being under surveillance.

Targeting human rights workers

Amnesty International stated in August that one of its staff was targeted by Pegasus in an effort to spy on them.

This WhatsApp message purporting to be about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia was an attempt to lure the recipient into clicking on a link that would turn their mobile phone into a powerful spying device.

The staff member had received a Whastapp message which purported to be about a protest in support of political prisoners held by Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International stated that it “was clearly an attempt to trick our colleague into clicking on the link.”

The domain name in the message belongs to “a large network infrastructure that has been previously documented to be connected to the Israeli surveillance vendor, NSO Group,” Amnesty added.

Human rights defenders and others in Panama, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates have been targeted by the same Israeli spyware, investigations by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab have revealed.

Amnesty identified one other human rights defender in Saudi Arabia who was also targeted.

Among those who have been targeted by the spyware, according to Citizen Lab, is the Emirati human rights advocate Ahmed Mansoor, in 2016.

Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison for social media postings in May.

Judo capitulation

The exchange of spy technology between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is a link in a chain of ongoing collaboration that dates back to the 1990s. The collaboration has occurred despite how the UAE and Israel do not have formal diplomatic relations.

In the past few days, the UAE Judo Federation has capitulated to Israel’s demands to exhibit its flag and play its national anthem at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam competition in October.

The International Judo Federation initially canceled the Abu Dhabi event, along with one in Tunisia, after the two countries refused to normalize Israeli participation.

The international federation has now reinstated the Abu Dhabi competition.

Israeli culture minister Miri Regev thanked the president of the International Judo Federation, Marius Vizer, who she lobbied extensively to exclude the UAE and Tunisia from Judo events.

“For the first time, Abu Dhabi will host a sports delegation in Judo and will allow them to compete with the flag and the anthem of the state of Israel,” Regev said in a video message.

“It is time that they understand, that in sports we separate between sport and politics,” Regev stated, despite her ministry’s involvement in the affair.

PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, condemned the UAE’s decision.

“Is it conceivable that the Israeli flag will be raised and the Israeli anthem, which celebrates the restoration of the ‘land of Zion,’ will be played in the United Arab Emirates at a time when the occupation is killing our women and children, destroying our homes and fields, ‘Judaizing’ Jerusalem and expelling our people?” PACBI said.

“We call on the United Arab Emirates to reverse this decision, which contributes to the normalization of this regime and its international validation, at a time when Israeli settler colonialism is being isolated and its practices rejected.”

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.