Israeli firm rejects accusations of connection to Khashoggi killing

An Israeli company known for its sophisticated phone surveillance technology on Monday rejected accusations that its snooping software helped lead to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

By Associated Press

The Israel-based NSO Group faced similar claims in the past that its products were used to stifle dissent in other countries. But the alleged connection to the Jamal Khashoggi killing is the most high-profile case to date, drawing new attention to the company.

The latest case against NSO was spelled out in a lawsuit filed in an Israeli court Sunday by a Saudi dissident. In the suit, Omar Abdulaziz, a sharp online critic of the Saudi royals who lives in exile in Canada, said he was friends with Khashoggi and that their communications were monitored by the Saudis using NSO software.

Abdulaziz said he clicked on a link sent to his phone in June 2018 that exposed his mobile communications to Saudi authorities. The lawsuit says Abdulaziz faced increased harassment by Saudi authorities after he clicked on the link, including the detention of family members in Saudi Arabia.

Abdulaziz also believes that his cooperation with Khashoggi was a “crucial factor” in the killing of the U.S.-based columnist for The Washington Post. The men had been working on a project to rein in pro-monarchy Saudi trolls.

Alaa Mahajna, a lawyer for the Saudi dissident, said the suit alleges that NSO sells technology to “dictatorship states” like Saudi Arabia to spy on journalists and human rights activists.

“The lawsuit proves that by using this technology, Saudi Arabia succeeded to follow after Jamal Khashoggi and his interactions with Omar Abdulaziz,” he said.

Unfounded lawsuit?

The lawsuit says Abdulaziz was notified that his phone was compromised by internet watchdog Citizen Lab. It cites news reports and other sources claiming that NSO Group sold Saudi Arabia the technology in 2017 for $55 million. Abdulaziz is demanding about $160,000 in damages and an order preventing NSO from selling its technology to Saudi Arabia.

NSO issued a statement calling the lawsuit “completely unfounded.” It claimed the suit was based on inaccurate “press clippings” and showed “no evidence that the company’s technology was used.”

“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,” it said.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said it is “meticulous” in granting export licenses, but it declined to comment on its policies, citing security concerns.

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.

The company said its 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.”

Billion dollar operation

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.

The secretive company rarely speaks to the media, does not publicly identify its customers and does not even have a website.

But a person familiar with NSO said the company keeps tight oversight over its sales. He said the company will not do business with 21 countries, including Russia, China and Turkey, as well as many others blocked by the Defense Ministry.

He also said NSO has an “ethics committee” that includes human rights experts and former U.S. officials that must vet every sale. He said the committee has blocked over $100 million in deals over the past three years, though he declined to elaborate. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing inside corporate information.

The company says it does not assist its customers in the actual monitoring process. But the person familiar with NSO said the company has a number of safeguards to prevent misuse of its products.

For instance, it can restrict in which countries the product will work, and it limits how many people can be targeted by its flagship “Pegasus” product.

He estimated that at any given time, there are no more than 150 to 200 “targets” among all of its customers worldwide.

“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 NSO statement said.

Any possible use of Israeli technology to police dissent in the Arab world could raise uncomfortable questions both for Israel, which remains the only democracy in the region, and for countries with no formal diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently alludes to warming ties with Arab states, in what is widely seen as a reference to Saudi Arabia. Last month, Netanyahu paid a landmark visit to the Gulf state of Oman. He has promised that there will soon be additional announcements.

Any Israeli connection to the Khashoggi killing — even indirect or unintentional — could complicate Netanyahu’s strategy.