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17 Jul 2021

Ronen Bergman & Mark Mazzetti, New York Times

Israel: Surveillance technology companies allegedly aided Saudi spying despite Khashoggi killing

Israel secretly authorized 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 the 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, canceled 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 license 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.

... NSO is by far the best known of the Israeli firms... Israel’s Ministry of Defense 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 licenses 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.

...An NSO statement said the company could not discuss the identity of its government customers, but added: “As NSO has previously stated, our technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This includes listening, monitoring, tracking or collecting information.”

Officials with Candiru, Verint and the government of Saudi Arabia declined to comment. Officials with Quadream could not be reached.