TEL AVIV – Israel has secretly commissioned a group of cyber-surveillance companies to work for the Saudi government despite international condemnation of the kingdom’s misuse of surveillance software to quell any Saudi Arabian government. dissent, even after Saudi Arabia killed journalist Jamaal Khashoggi, government officials and others familiar with the contracts said.
After the murder of Mr. Khashoggi in 2018, one of the companies, NSO Group, canceled its contract with Saudi Arabia amid allegations that its hacking tools were misused to abet the Saudis. heinous crime.
But the Israeli government encouraged NSO and two other companies to continue working with Saudi Arabia, and issued a new license to a fourth person to do the same work, overcoming any concerns about human rights violations. authority, according to a senior Israeli official and three people involved in the company.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has continued to use this spyware to spy on political dissidents and opponents.
The fact that the Israeli government encourages its private companies to do security work for the kingdom – one of its historical rivals and a country that has yet to officially recognize Israel – is more evidence of the arrangement. traditional alliances in the region and strategy. due to Israel and some Persian Gulf countries joining forces to isolate Iran.
NSO is by far the best known among Israeli companies, largely due to revelations over the last few years that its Pegasus program has been used by multiple governments to spy and ultimately jail. human rights activists.
NSO sold Pegasus to Saudi Arabia in 2017. The kingdom used the spyware as part of a ruthless campaign to crush dissidents in the kingdom and hunt down those. Saudi dissidents abroad.
It is not known whether Saudi Arabia used Pegasus or other Israeli-made spyware in the plot to kill Mr. NSO has denied that its software was used.
The Israeli Defense Ministry also granted permission to Saudi Arabia to work for a company called Candiru, which Microsoft accused last week of helping its government clients spy on more than 100 journalists, politicians and real estate agents. political parties and human rights advocates around the world.
Microsoft, which conducted an investigation in parallel with Citizen Lab, a research institute at the University of Toronto, said Candiru used malware to exploit vulnerabilities in Microsoft products, allowing Their government clients tracking enemies are aware of.
Candiru has had at least one contract with Saudi Arabia since 2018.
Israel has also licensed at least two other companies, Verint, which was licensed before Khashoggi’s murder, and Quadream, which contracted with Saudi Arabia after the murder.
According to Haaretz, a fifth company, Cellebrite, which makes physical hacking systems for mobile phones, also sold its services to the Saudi government, but without the ministry’s approval.
Israel insists that if any Israeli spyware is used to violate civil rights, it will revoke the company’s license.
If the Department of Defense “discovers that the item purchased is being used contrary to the terms of the license, especially after any human rights violation, the procedure to cancel the defense export license or enforcement of its terms will be kicked in,” the department said in a statement in response to questions from The New York Times.
The department declined to answer specific questions about the licenses it grants to Israeli companies, but said that “a range of security, diplomatic and strategic considerations are taken into account” when considering licensing. whether or not to export offensive network technology.
Revelations about misuse of NSO products prompted the company to hire an outside consulting team in 2108 to advise on new customers NSO should take on and what should be avoided. The group includes Daniel Shapiro, a former Obama administration ambassador to Israel, and Beacon Global Strategies, a Washington strategic consulting firm.
Beacon is led by Jeremy Bash, a former CIA and Pentagon chief of staff; Michael Allen, former chief of staff on the House Intelligence Committee; and Andrew Shapiro, a former top State Department official.
While the group’s mission was to check on new leads, international outrage over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 led the team to advise NSO to cancel its contract with Saudi Arabia and close its doors. NSO systems in this kingdom.
Separately, NSO conducted an internal investigation into whether any of its tools were used by Saudi officials for Khashoggi’s operation and concluded that they were not. However, a lawsuit filed against the NSO by a friend of Mr. Khashoggi claims that his phone was hacked by Saudi Arabia using Pegasus and that the hack allowed Saudi officials to access to his conversations with Mr. Khashoggi, including communications about opposition projects.
For a few days in late 2018, the chief executive officer of both NSO and the private equity firm that owned it, Francisco Partners, met with the advisory group in Washington.
According to several people familiar with the meetings, NSO executives argued that the Israeli government was strongly encouraging the company to weather the storm and continue its work in Saudi Arabia. They also said that Israeli officials had indicated to them that the Trump administration also wanted the NSO’s work with Saudi Arabia to continue.
Ultimately, NSO management heeded the advice of the outside team and canceled the contract with Saudi Arabia at the end of 2018. Mr. Shapiro, a former ambassador to Israel, ended his job for the company shortly thereafter. .
However, a few months later, after another private equity firm acquired NSO, the company again did business with Saudi Arabia.
NSO’s new owner, Novalpina, rejected the advice of an outside advisory group and NSO resumed its work in Saudi Arabia in mid-2019.
- Important figures. The key players in the latest shift in Israeli politics have vastly different agendas, but have a common goal. Naftali Bennett, the leader of a small right-wing party, and Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the Israeli opposition, joined forces to form a diverse coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
- Ideal range. Extending Israel’s political complexities from left to right and relying on the support of a small Arab Muslim party, the coalition, dubbed the “government for change” by supporters, could marked a profound change for Israel.
- General objective. After a deadlock resulted in four inconclusive elections in two years, and an even longer period of polarized politics and government paralysis, the coalition’s architects have committed get Israel back on track.
- An uncertain future. Parliament still has to approve the fragile deal in a vote of confidence in the coming days. But even if that happens, it remains unclear how much change the “change government” could bring to Israel as some stakeholders have little in common other than animosity towards Mr.
The new contract comes with some limitations. For example, NSO has set up its system to block any attempt by Saudi officials to hack European phone numbers, according to a person familiar with the program.
But it is clear that Saudi Arabia has continued to use NSO’s software to spy on rivals abroad.
According to Citizen Lab, in one case that has come to light, three dozen phones belonging to journalists at Al Jazeera, which Saudi Arabia considers a threat, were hacked using NSO’s Pegasus software last year, according to Citizen Lab. Citizen Lab traced 18 of the attacks back to Saudi intelligence.
Following the revelation of Al Jazeera’s attack on journalists, NSO recently shut down the system and at a meeting in early July, the company’s board decided to declare new transactions with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is off-limits, according to a person familiar with the decision.
The Israeli Defense Ministry is currently fighting lawsuits by Israeli rights activists asking them to release details about the licensing process.
The Israeli government also imposes strict secrecy on the companies that receive the licenses, threatening to revoke the licenses if the companies speak publicly about the identities of their customers.
An NSO statement said the company could not discuss the identities of government customers, but added: “As NSO has previously stated, our technology is not involved in the brutal murder. by Jamal Khashoggi. This includes listening, monitoring, tracking or gathering information”.
Officials from Candiru, Verint and the Saudi government declined to comment. Officials with Quadream could not be reached.
These business relationships come as Israel is quietly building a direct relationship with the Saudi government.
Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s prime minister, met several times with Saudi Arabia’s daily ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the two countries’ military and intelligence leaders met regularly.
While Saudi Arabia has not officially joined the Abrahamic Accords – the late Trump administration’s diplomatic initiative to normalize relations between Israel and several Arab nations – the leaders Saudi Arabia worked behind the scenes to help broker the deals.
Ronen Bergman reports from Tel Aviv, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington. Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut.