Eli Lake, the pro-Israel Bloomberg columnist, thinks selling Israeli-made Pegasus spyware to Saudi Arabia not a good idea. Lake recently met Palestinian blogger Ayad al-Baghdadi (no relation to the ISIS leader of the same name) who has reportedly been targeted by the Saudi regime.
Now living in exile in Norway, al Baghdadi still has to fear the long arm of Saudi intelligence as empowered by Israeli technology.
Pegasus and similar hacking programs are now able to break into a phone without requiring the user to even click a link. In some cases, a bogus WhatsApp call is enough to infect the phone and make it a powerful tracking device. That makes it particularly suited to monitor Arab dissidents like Al-Baghdadi, who rely on the encrypted messaging service to make contact with networks of activists across the Middle East.
Al-Baghdadi has reason to worry after the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, apparently by a team of Saudi intelligence operatives.
The NSO Group, the company that created Pegasus, expresses the hope that their spyware won’t be used for illicit purposes, but the sentiment is close to meaningless. Lake talked to Danny O’Brien, the director of strategy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“If you sell a piece of equipment like this to a place like Saudi Arabia,” he told me, “it’s going to be used to target journalists, human rights activists and lawyers.”
Israeli officials used Pegasus to target Amnesty International investigators. Mexican drug cartels used Pegasus to surveil reporters asking too many questions. Not surprisingly, spyware is a growth industry.
For more on Saudi Arabia’s spy service, the General Intelligence Presidency, click here.