The Citizen Lab research group said it had “high confidence” that NSO’s Pegasus software had been used this summer to eavesdrop on a 27-year-old Saudi exile, Omar Abdulaziz.
According to the report, which was picked up by Canadian daily The Globe and Mail, the aim was to access the iPhone of Abdulaziz, who lives in Montreal and has been a prominent critic of the Saudi government on social media.
Any such use of eavesdropping technology by a foreign government would constitute illegal wiretapping, Citizen Lab Director Ron Deibert told the daily.
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The case comes against the backdrop of a diplomatic crisis between Ottawa and Riyadh, following criticism in August by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland over the jailing of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. She also called for their release.
Saudi Arabia called the minister’s comments a violation of its sovereignty and in response suspended diplomatic and trade ties with Canada. Riyadh also brought home thousands of Saudi university students who had been studying in Canada.
In July, Citizen Lab researchers issued a warning that misleading messages about protests in Saudi Arabia were being used to target cellphones, including that of a regional Amnesty International researcher. Last month, the University of Toronto research group claimed that at least 36 governments were making use of NSO’s services. It also claimed there was a high degree of probability that Saudi Arabia was among them. Suspected Pegasus software infections were found in Canada, Britain, France and Morocco, in addition to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar and Bahrain, Citizen Lab said.
In August, it was reported that the United Arab Emirates had used NSO software to track 159 members of the Qatari royal family. And lawsuits recently filed in Israel and Cyprus alleged that the rulers of the UAE used Pegasus for more than a year to monitor opponents of the regime both inside the emirate and abroad.
For its part, NSO has said it “develops products that are licensed only to legitimate government agencies for the sole purpose of investigating and preventing crime and terror.” Its software, the company said, has been used to help prevent suicide attacks, to help convict drug lords and to locate missing children. It did not specify which governments make use of its technology. “The product will not operate outside of approved countries,” its statement said.