Edward Snowden said on Tuesday that software from the Israeli firm NSO Group Technologies was used to help track the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed last month at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence contract worker, gained international prominence after leaking American intelligence files in 2013 to the media. He spoke on Tuesday at a conference in Tel Aviv via a live video link.
The assertion that Israeli spyware has been used against Saudi dissidents was first reported by the Canadian research institute Citizen Lab in October. According to the report, NSO's Pegasus spyware had been installed on the phone of Omar Abdulaziz, another exiled Saudi dissident and a friend of Khashoggi's. Abdulaziz said that he used his cell phone to discuss Saudi politics and plan joint projects with Khashoggi in the months before the latter was killed. Abdulaziz claims that his phone was being monitored at the time.
"Some of you may have heard about the Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi," Snowden said. "He went into the [Saudi] consulate and he was immediately strangled… how did this get planned, how did this come together…?”
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The Saudis, he continued, “knew he was going to come to the consulate because he had made an appointment… but how did they know what his plans and intentions were, how did they decide that he was someone they needed to ask against, who was worth the risk?"
Snowden then suggested that the Saudis were able to gain information on Khashoggi by spiying on "his friend, who was also in exile in Canada."
"The reality is that they bugged one of his few friends and contacts using software created by an Israeli company. We don’t know the chain of consequence because this company will never comment on this, but it’s one of the major stories not being written about," Snowden added.
As reported by the Hebrew website of the Globes business daily, NSO responded to the allegations as follows:
"Not only does the company work subject to military export laws. It is also the only company of its kind in the world that has an independent ethics committee that includes outside experts with a background in law and international relations, with the goal of preventing its products from being misused, and therefore, contrary to what has been reported in the press, the company does not sell them and does not make their use possible in a large number of countries. On a daily basis, NSO assists in saving lives of thousands of people from the hands of terrorists, drug barons, child-abductors, pedophiles and others."
Pegasus makes it possible to carry out nearly limitless surveillance of individuals, including taking control of cell phones. Its capabilities include collecting information about the phone's location, wiretapping into it, recording conversations taking place near the phone and photographing those in the vicinity of the phone.
The spyware also allows those carrying out the surveillance to read and write text messages and emails on the phone, to download apps on it and use applications already on the phone. In addition, the software can access photos, video clips, calendar reminders and contact lists. Access is usually gained through an infected link that is sent via a text message to the phone.
Snowden described NSO as a company that is "developing digital burglary tools" and called it "the worst of the worst in selling these burglary tools that are being actively currently used to violate human rights."
Snowden went on to criticize the Israeli high-tech industry, which he said fails to take responsibility for how Israeli-made surveillance systems are used around the world. The former American intelligence contractor also suggested that the companies are over-reliant on the explanation that they sell the software to governments and law enforcement agencies that should be able to be trusted. Too often the Israeli firms don't know what use their products are being put to, he said.
"This is not a cybersecurity industry. This is a cyber-insecurity industry," Snowden declared.
Lawsuits were recently filed in Israel and Cyprus against NSO and another Israeli-led company called Circles by a number of Mexican citizens, including journalists and political activists, as well as a Qatari citizen. The plaintiffs claim they were targeted by the companies’ surveillance tools.