Israeli cyber firm negotiated advanced attack capabilities sale with Saudis, Haaretz reveals
Just months before crown prince launched a purge against his opponents, NSO offered Saudi intelligence officials a system to hack into cellular phones ■ NSO: We abide the law, our products are used to combat crime and terrorism
Amos Harel, Chaim Levinson and Yaniv Kubovich Nov 25, 2018
The Israeli company NSO Group Technologies offered Saudi Arabia a system that hacks cellphones, a few months before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his purge of regime opponents, according to a complaint to the Israel Police now under investigation.
But NSO, whose development headquarters is in Herzliya, says that it has acted according to the law and its products are used in the fight against crime and terror.
Either way, a Haaretz investigation based on testimony and photos, as well as travel and legal documents, reveals the Saudis’ behind-the-scenes attempts to buy Israeli technology.
In June 2017, a diverse group gathered in a hotel room in Vienna, a city between East and West that for decades has been a center for espionage, defense-procurement contacts and unofficial diplomatic meetings.
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Arriving at the hotel were Abdullah al-Malihi, a close associate of Prince Turki al-Faisal – a former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services – and another senior Saudi official, Nasser al-Qahtani, who presented himself as the deputy of the current intelligence chief. Their interlocutors were two Israeli businessmen, representatives of NSO, who presented to the Saudis highly advanced technology.
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In 2017, NSO was avidly promoting its new technology, its Pegasus 3 software, an espionage tool so sophisticated that it does not depend on the victim clicking on a link before the phone is breached.
During the June 2017 meeting, NSO officials showed a PowerPoint presentation of the system’s capabilities. To demonstrate it, they asked Qahtani to go to a nearby mall, buy an iPhone and give them its number. During that meeting they showed how this was enough to hack into the new phone and record and photograph the participants in the meeting.
The meeting in Vienna wasn’t the first one between the two sides. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently expressed pride in the tightening ties with Gulf states, with Israel’s strength its technology. The message is clear: Israel is willing to sell these countries security-related technologies, and they forge closer ties with Israel in the strategic battle against Iran.