According to a report in the Guardian yesterday, the mobile phone of one of Catalonia’s most senior politicians was targeted using spyware produced by an Israeli company and sold to governments around the world. The hacking software exploits vulnerabilities in WhatsApp to gain control over a target’s phone. Saudi Arabia is Among the governments the Israeli firm NSO Group list as clients, and it is widely believed that other Gulf States are likely to be utilising the spyware.
“The government of Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE has been implicated in multiple hacking attempts in the past,” says Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai & Due Process International, “The case of Farhad Azima is perhaps the most well known, but others have allegedly been targeted, had their emails hacked, locations tracked, and so on, with suspicion falling upon RAK’s ruler Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qassimi. This software is officially designated for use only to monitor suspected terrorists and criminals, but when it is being utilised by undemocratic states, like in the Gulf, it is more likely to be used to persecute political enemies and as a weapon in personal disputes between members of the government and private sector partners.”
Stirling cautions that rulers throughout the Gulf tend to view the state apparatus as their personal property, and they will use it against any perceived opponents without hesitation. “Rights of privacy, freedoms of expression and association, individual liberty, are all concepts that do not exist either culturally or legally in many of these countries. Often the state does not need grounds for surveilling an individual beyond the caprice of the ruler; who has absolute authority.
“They can, and do, spy on business partners and investors, political opposition parties, journalists, human rights organisations, and academics. NSO Group must know that authoritarian states are using their software, not for preventing crimes or terrorism, but as instruments of control and persecution.”
“Our organisation takes internet security very seriously, and many of our clients have suffered hacking attempts. We are actively pursuing litigation on their behalf, in both the US and UK, for these grave breaches of privacy. Gulf states like Qatar and the UAE frequently reach beyond their territorial jurisdictions to harass and abuse people involved in disputes in those countries; hacking is just one of the methods they employ. We urge everyone to know their rights according to the laws of the country of their citizenship, and that lawsuits can be brought against parties abroad who violate these rights. Just because this sort of hacking software is only sold to governments does not mean it will be used responsibly or even legally; and when those government clients include the likes of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar or countries who service them, it is almost a certainty that it will be misused.”