A Saudi dissident based in Montreal, Canada, filed a lawsuit this week against the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber security firm. The suit alleges the Saudi government used software from the company to spy on conversations with the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Omar Adbulaziz filed the case in Tel Aviv. He told NPR he had exchanged hundreds of text messages with Khashoggi through encrypted messaging apps, before being informed that their communication had been intercepted.
“Jamal was killed two months later. For sure the conversations between us played a major role in what happened to Jamal,” Abdulaziz said.
One of the ideas Abdulaziz said he discussed with Khashoggi was the mobilization of youth and dissidents within the country into a “cyber army” who could share information about human rights violations via Twitter. “We weren’t working on something dangerous. We weren’t doing something illegal. We were just planning to have our own peaceful army to just spread awareness through social media,” Abdulaziz said.
Researcher Bill Marczak, from the Toronto-based Citizen Lab which investigates digital espionage, told NPR he found evidence of spyware activity in Montreal that he believed was linked to the NSO Group and Saudi Arabia last summer. “I was able to identify this infection in Montreal, moving between two different locations: a home Internet service provider and a university Internet service provider.” Marczak then tracked down Saudi Arabian dissidents in Montreal who might be targeted for surveillance, and found Abdulaziz, who began speaking out against Saudi Arabia’s government after moving to Canada.
Marczak found that Abdulaziz had been sent “a fake package-tracking notification from DHL with a malicious link to the spyware,” which was capable of intercepting encrypted apps and voice calls, and could turn on the phone’s microphone and web cam remotely.
NSO Group issued a statement saying the lawsuit is “completely unfounded” and that it “shows no evidence that the company’s technology was used.”
“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. 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 from NSO Group says.
The Associated Press reports, “The NSO Group’s smartphone-hacking technology has emerged as a favorite for authorities seeking to crush dissent across the Middle East and Latin America. The Israeli firm’s software is part of a larger family of malware that allows spies to take remote control of phones from anywhere in the world — turning the devices in targets’ pockets into powerful surveillance tools.”
“Founded by Israeli entrepreneurs, NSO was sold in 2014 for $130 million to the U.S. private equity firm Francisco Partners. Today, it employs some 600 people and is believed to be valued at over $1 billion,” according to the AP.
Danna Ingleton, a deputy program director for Amnesty International, told NPR one of the group’s staffers was also targeted with NSO software. The Amnesty employee received a text which “included a baiting message around information related to a protest outside of the Saudi Arabian embassy in the U.S.” and provided a link to spyware which Amnesty says was created by the NSO Group.
Just weeks before Khashoggi’s death, Marczak informed Abdulaziz that his phone was intercepted. The two dissidents had exchanged messages on an almost daily basis, forming a close bond.
“Jamal was not my friend two years ago,” Abdulaziz told NPR. “He was pro-government, and we had our disagreements. We didn’t have a very good time together. But when MBS became the crown prince, and decided to control the country, and decided to misuse his power, Jamal left Saudi Arabia.”
Both had left close family members and friends back home. “Jamal was missing his family, missing his daughters, his kids, his sons, and I was missing my parents,” Abdulaziz said. “He was a wise man. He was my mentor.”
Abdulaziz told NPR that over the last year he and Khashoggi were targeted by trolls on social media — trolls that he believed were tied to Saudi Arabia’s government. “They were threatening Jamal so many times. So many tweets. So many people, they were telling Jamal, ‘We’re going to kill you,’” Abdulaziz said.
He and Khashoggi planned to send hard-to-track SIM cards to citizens in Saudi Arabia, so they could set up their own social media accounts. Abdulaziz said Khashoggi had promised to invest $30,000 in the project, and had already transferred $5,000 to Abdulaziz to cover costs. “[Saudi Arabia’s government] didn’t like that, because the only place where they can spread their rumors, they can control and maintain the local narratives, is the social media, specifically Twitter,” Abdulaziz said.
Since speaking out about Khashoggi’s death and the interception of communications with him, Abdulaziz says he has received offers of financial support from people living within and outside of Saudi Arabia. “MBS has so many enemies. I don’t want to call them enemies, but they do believe that he is the issue, he is the problem for Saudi Arabia, and he should be kicked out of his position, or he is going to destroy not only Saudi Arabia, he is going to destroy the region.”
When asked if he was afraid after Khashoggi’s brutal killing, Abdulaziz responded, “I’m motivated. More than ever.”