Israeli software helped Saudis spy on Jamal Khashoggi, lawsuit says

The lawsuit claims that in the months before journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder, the royal court had access to his communications about opposition projects through the spyware installed on his phone.
The lawsuit claims that in the months before journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder, the royal court had access to his communications about opposition projects through the spyware installed on his phone.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (NYTIMES) - A Saudi dissident close to murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi has filed a lawsuit charging that an Israeli software company helped the royal court take over his smartphone and spy on his communications with Khashoggi.

The lawsuit puts new pressure on the company, NSO Group, and on the Israeli government, which licenses the company's sales to foreign governments of its spyware, known as Pegasus.

More broadly, the suit also calls new attention to Israel's increasingly open alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies.

Saudi Arabia and its allies like the United Arab Emirates have never recognised the Jewish state but have quietly found common cause with it in opposition to Iran.

The lawsuit, filed in Israel by Montreal-based Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, follows parallel suits by journalists, activists and others charging that NSO Group improperly helped the governments of Mexico and the United Arab Emirates spy on their smartphones even though the individuals had no criminal record and posed no threat of violence.

In a statement on Sunday (Dec 2), NSO Group said its products were "licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime".

Contracts for use of its software "are only provided after a full vetting and licensing by the Israeli government," the company said, adding: "We do not tolerate misuse of our products. If there is suspicion of misuse, we investigate it and take the appropriate actions, including suspending or terminating a contract."

 

The spyware allows its customers to secretly listen to calls, record keystrokes, read messages, and track internet history on a targeted phone.

It also enables customers to use a phone's microphone and camera as surveillance devices.

Because of those sweepingly invasive capabilities, Israel classifies the spyware as a weapon. The company must obtain approval from the Defence Ministry for its sale to foreign governments.

Saudi Arabia paid US$55 million (S$75 million) last year for its use, according to Israeli news reports.

The lawsuit claims that in the months before Khashoggi's killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the royal court had access to Khashoggi's communications about opposition projects with Abdulaziz because of the spyware on Abdulaziz's phone.