Israeli companies aided Saudi spying despite Khashoggi killing

TEL AVIV (NYTIMES) - Israel secretly authorised a group of cyber-surveillance firms to work for the government of Saudi Arabia despite international condemnation of the kingdom's abuse of surveillance software to crush dissent, even after the Saudi killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, government officials and others familiar with the contracts said.

After the murder of Mr Khashoggi in 2018, one of the firms, NSO Group, cancelled its contracts with Saudi Arabia amid accusations that its hacking tools were being misused to abet heinous crimes.

But the Israeli government encouraged NSO and two other companies to continue working with Saudi Arabia, and issued a new licence for a fourth to do similar work, overriding any concerns about human rights abuses, according to one senior Israeli official and three people affiliated with the companies.

Since then, Saudi Arabia has continued to use the spyware to monitor dissidents and political opponents.

The fact that Israel's government has encouraged its private companies to do security work for the kingdom is yet more evidence of the reordering of traditional alliances in the region and the strategy by Israel and several Persian Gulf countries to join forces to isolate Iran.

NSO is by far the best known of the Israeli firms, largely because of revelations in the past few years that its Pegasus program was 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 inside the kingdom and to hunt down Saudi dissidents abroad.

It is not publicly known whether Saudi Arabia used Pegasus or other Israeli-made spyware in the plot to kill Mr Khashoggi. NSO has denied that its software was used.

Israel's Ministry of Defence also licensed for Saudi work a company called Candiru, which Microsoft accused last week of helping its government clients spy on more than 100 journalists, politicians, dissidents and human rights advocates around the world.

Israel has also granted licences to at least two other firms, Verint, which was licensed before the Khashoggi killing, and Quadream, which signed a contract with Saudi Arabia after the killing.

A fifth company, Cellebrite, which manufactures physical hacking systems for mobile phones, has also sold its services to the Saudi government, but without ministry approval, according to the newspaper Haaretz.

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