TEL AVIV – Israel has secretly authorized a group of cyber-surveillance firms to work for the government of Saudi Arabia, despite international condemnation by the Kingdom of the abuse of surveillance software to crush dissent, even after the Saudi assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, government official and others familiar with the contracts said.
Following the murder of Mr Khashoggi in 2018, one of the companies, the NSO Group, terminated its contracts with Saudi Arabia on charges that its hacking tools were being used to facilitate heinous crimes.
But the Israeli government encouraged the NSO and two other companies to continue to work with Saudi Arabia, and granted a fourth company a new license to do similar work in an attempt to override any concerns about human rights violations, according to a senior Israeli official and three employees of the Companies.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has continued to use the spyware to monitor dissidents and political opponents.
The fact that the Israeli government has encouraged its private companies to do security work for the kingdom – one of its historical adversaries and a nation that still does not officially recognize Israel – is further evidence of the reorganization of traditional alliances in the region and the world Strategy by Israel and several Persian Gulf countries to join forces to isolate Iran.
NSO is by far the best known Israeli company, largely because of the revelations in recent years that its Pegasus program has been used by numerous governments to spy on and eventually imprison human rights activists.
NSO sold Pegasus to Saudi Arabia in 2017. The kingdom used the spyware as part of a ruthless campaign to crush dissent within the kingdom and hunt down Saudi dissidents abroad.
It is not publicly known whether Saudi Arabia used Pegasus or other Israel-made spyware in the plot to assassinate Mr. Khashoggi. NSO has denied that its software was used.
The Israel Defense Ministry has also licensed a company called Candiru for Saudi labor that Microsoft accused last week to help its government clients spy on more than 100 journalists, politicians, dissidents and human rights activists around the world.
Microsoft, which conducted its research with Citizen Lab, a research institute at the University of Toronto, said Candiru used malware to exploit a vulnerability in Microsoft products that enabled its government customers to spy on supposed enemies.
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 the Khashoggi murder, and Quadream, which signed a treaty with Saudi Arabia after the murder.
A fifth company, Cellebrite, which makes physical hacking systems for cell phones, also has sold his services to the Saudi governmentbut without the Ministry’s approval, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
Israel insists that if Israeli spyware were used to violate civil rights, it would revoke the company’s license.
If the Department of Defense establishes “an unauthorized use of the object of purchase, especially after a violation of human rights, a procedure to revoke the arms export license or said in a statement in response to questions from the New York Times.
The ministry declined to answer specific questions about the licenses it issued to Israeli firms, but said that when granting a license to export offensive cyber technology, “takes into account a wide range of security, diplomatic and strategic considerations” becomes.
Revelations of NSO product abuse led the company to hire a group of outside consultants in 2018 to advise which new customers to adopt NSO and which to avoid. The group included Daniel Shapiro, the former Obama administration’s ambassador to Israel, and Beacon Global Strategies, a Washington-based strategic advisory firm.
Beacon is led by Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff of the CIA and the Pentagon; Michael Allen, a former HR director of the House Intelligence Committee; and Andrew Shapiro, a former State Department top official.
While the group’s mandate was to screen potential new customers, international outrage over the October 2018 assassination of Mr Khashoggi led the group to advise NSOs to terminate their Saudi contracts and close down NSO systems in the Kingdom.
Separately, NSO conducted an internal investigation into whether any of its tools were being used by Saudi officials for the Khashoggi operation and concluded that it was not. However, a lawsuit against NSO by a friend of Mr Khashoggi alleges that his phone was hacked by Saudi Arabia using Pegasus and that this hack gave Saudi officials access to his conversations with Mr Khashoggi, including communications about opposition projects.
At the end of 2018, executives from NSO and the then private equity firm Francisco Partners met with the advisory group in Washington for several days.
According to several people familiar with the meetings, NSO executives argued that the Israeli government strongly encouraged the company to weather the storm and continue its work in Saudi Arabia. They also said Israeli officials had told them that the Trump administration also wanted the NSO to continue working with Saudi Arabia.
In the end, NSO management followed the advice of the external group and terminated its contracts with Saudi Arabia at the end of 2018. Mr. Shapiro, the former ambassador to Israel, left the company shortly afterwards.
Months later, however, after another private equity firm bought NSO, the company resumed business with Saudi Arabia.
NSO’s new owner Novalpina rejected the advice of the external advisory group and NSO resumed its work in Saudi Arabia in mid-2019.
- Key characters. The main actors in the recent turnaround in Israeli politics have very different goals, but one common goal. Naftali Bennett, who leads a small right-wing party, and Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the Israeli opposition, have teamed up to form a diverse coalition to oust Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
- Range of ideals. The coalition, dubbed a “change of government” by its supporters, stretches left to right across Israel’s fragmented political spectrum and relies on the support of a small Arab, Islamist party that is likely to mean profound change for Israel.
- A common goal. After a deadlock that resulted in four unsuccessful elections in two years, and an even longer period of polarizing politics and government paralysis, the coalition architects have promised to get Israel back on track.
- An uncertain future. Parliament still has to ratify the fragile agreement in a vote of confidence in the coming days. But even if so, it remains unclear how much change the “change of government” could bring to Israel, as some of the parties involved have little in common other than hostility towards Mr. Netanyahu.
The new contract came with some restrictions. For example, NSO set up its system to block all attempts by Saudi officials to hack European phone numbers, according to someone familiar with the programming.
But it is clear that Saudi Arabia continues to use NSO software to spy on supposed opponents overseas.
In one case that became known, three dozen phones were hacked using NSO’s Pegasus software last year by journalists from Al Jazeera, who views Saudi Arabia as a threat, according to Citizen Lab. Citizen Lab traced 18 of the attacks back to Saudi intelligence agencies.
Following the exposure of the attack on Al Jazeera journalists, NSO recently shut down the system, and at a meeting in early July, the company’s board of directors decided to ban new business with Saudi Arabia, according to a person familiar with the decision.
The Israel Defense Ministry is currently battling lawsuits from Israeli human rights defenders demanding that details of the licensing procedure be disclosed.
The Israeli government also imposes a strict duty of confidentiality on the companies that receive the licenses and threatens to withdraw them if the companies speak publicly about the identity of their customers.
An NSO statement said the company cannot talk about the identity of its government customers, but added, “As NSO previously stated, our technology has in no way been linked to the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This includes eavesdropping, monitoring, tracking or collecting information. “
Officials from Candiru, Verint and the government of Saudi Arabia declined to comment. Officials with Quadream could not be reached.
These business relationships came about when Israel quietly established direct relationships with the Saudi government.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the then Israeli Prime Minister, met several times with Saudi Arabia’s everyday ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and military and intelligence leaders of the two countries meet frequently.
While Saudi Arabia was not officially a party to the Abraham Accords – the diplomatic initiatives during the end of the Trump administration that normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries – Saudi leaders worked behind the scenes to help broker the deals .
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv and Mark Mazzetti from Washington. Ben Hubbard contributed the coverage from Beirut.