Saudi friend of Khashoggi sues surveillance company
Jerusalem – A Saudi dissident has filed a lawsuit against an Israeli surveillance company, claiming its sophisticated spyware targeted him and helped lead to the killing of his friend, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The suit, filed in a Tel Aviv court on Sunday, follows others previously filed against the company. But because of the dissident’s ties to Khashoggi and his high-profile killing Oct. 2 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, it is likely to shine a greater spotlight on the Israeli company and the Israeli government, which licenses the export of the surveillance technology.
According to the lawsuit, Omar Abdulaziz, a sharp critic on social media of the Saudi royals and a resident of Canada where he has received asylum, said he was friends with Khashoggi and worked with him on a project meant to rein in pro-monarchy Saudi trolls.
The lawsuit says Abdulaziz received and clicked on a link sent to his phone in June 2018 that he argues exposed his mobile communications to Saudi authorities. It says Abdulaziz faced increased harassment by Saudi authorities after he clicked on the link, including the detention of family members in Saudi Arabia.
The lawsuit says the plaintiff plans to argue that the cooperation between the two activists was “a crucial factor” in the decision to have Khashoggi killed and that there was a direct link between the surveillance carried out on Abdulaziz and the slaying of the U.S.-based columnist for The Washington Post.
A 15-member assassination squad sent from Riyadh strangled and dismembered Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two months ago. His remains have yet to be found.
Ankara insists the orders for the killing came from the highest levels of the Saudi government, but not King Salman. The Saudi agents blamed for the killing included some members of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s security entourage. Riyadh denies the allegations that the crown prince was in any way linked to Khashoggi’s killing.
“The spying that was directed against (Abdulaziz) and the disclosure of the content of the conversations and messages between him and Khashoggi through the system contributed significantly to the decision to assassinate Mr. Khashoggi by the assassins at the consulate,” the lawsuit states, citing news reports and other sources claiming that NSO Group sold Saudi Arabia the technology in 2017 for $55 million.
The lawsuit says Abdulaziz was notified that his phone was compromised by internet watchdog Citizen Lab, which says it has used an internet survey technique to identify suspected spyware infections linked to the Israeli company.
Abdulaziz is demanding 600,000 shekels – about $160,000 – in damages from the company, as well as an order preventing it from selling its technology, known as “Pegasus,” to Saudi Arabia.
The NSO Group’s smartphone-hacking technology has emerged as a favorite for authorities seeking to crush dissent across the Middle East and Latin America. 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.
In a written statement, NSO Group said the company’s technology “enables governments and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime.” It said it takes “an extremely scrupulous” approach to the sale of its products, which also undergo vetting and licensing by Israel’s defense ministry.
“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,” it said.
There was no immediate comment from Israel’s defense ministry.
NSO has been under the spotlight for months after dissidents, journalists and other opposition figures have come forward to claim the company’s technology has been used by repressive governments to spy on them. These include Mexican and Qatari journalists who have already filed lawsuits against the company and an Amnesty International employee who was allegedly targeted by the software.
The new suit comes days after the human rights group said it was considering legal steps to have NSO Group’s export license revoked. It said it had made an urgent request to Israel’s defense ministry to have the company’s export license revoked following the targeting of one of its employees. It said the request was denied.
“We thoroughly reject this inadequate response. The mountain of evidence and reports on NSO Group and the sale of its spyware to human rights-violating regimes is substantial proof that NSO has gone rogue,” said Molly Malekar, programs director of Amnesty International Israel.
By continuing to approve NSO’s export license, she added, Israel’s defense ministry is practically admitting to knowingly cooperating with a company whose “software is used to commit human rights abuses.”
Associated Press cybersecurity writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.