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Cyber surveillance has become a major weapon for Gulf states to crack down on dissent. The push to acquire cyber spyware followed the Arab Spring in 2011, which saw activists and protesters coordinate demonstrations and campaigns over social media.
Since then, major defense and spyware companies have sold some of the most sophisticated cyber surveillance technologies to repressive regimes in the Gulf. In June 2017, the BBC published a major investigation, revealing that the Danish subsidiary of the UK BAE cybersurveillance company made massive sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Oman. The sales were approved by the Danish government.
Despite human rights concerns, Denmark’s foreign minister Anders Samuelson justified the sales, arguing that Gulf states need surveillance software to attack the Islamic State group (IS).
“This area is not black and white, and you can never give a hundred percent guarantee that there is no abuse. On the other hand, we also have an interest in fighting IS,” Sameulsen told reporters shortly after the scandal was exposed.
The surveillance system sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE is called Evident, which enables governments to intercept internet traffic with ease. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former employee at ETI added that the system could track people’s location and decrypt supposedly secure mobile applications.
Samuelsen refused to disclose the factors that the foreign ministry considered before approving the sale. However, experts suspect that business interests and anti-terrorism efforts were chief concerns.
“Politicians are good at making it [look like] human rights and democracy are the top priority,” said Helle Lykke Nielsen, associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark and expert on Gulf states, to TheNewArab. “But the core of Danish foreign policy is security and financial considerations.”
The use of cybersurveillance systems is believed to have resulted in the disappearance of many human right campaigners. One Saudi women’s rights activist, Manal al-Sharif, told the BBC that dissents used to warn that the ‘walls have ears,’ but today people in Gulf countries say, ‘smartphones have ears.’
“No country monitors its own people the way they do in Gulf countries,” she said. “They have the money, so they can buy advances surveillance software.”
In addition to Denmark, Gulf countries are also purchasing sophisticated surveillance systems from Israeli based companies despite not sharing formal diplomatic ties with the country.
City Lab, a research group from the University of Toronto, reported in September that Pegasus – a mobile phone surveillance system produced by the Israeli based NSO group – was sold to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the last two years.
“Our findings paint a bleak picture of the human rights risks of NSO’s global proliferation. At least six countries with significant Pegasus operations have previously been linked to abusive use of spyware to target civil society,” said the report, which named the three GCC countries as purchasers of Pegasus.
However, The New York Times may have exposed the biggest scandal in August 2018 when it obtained emails proving that the UAE had used Pegasus to monitor the Qatari emir, a Saudi prince, and the editor of an Arab language newspaper in the U.K.
The incident came about when NSO group asked if the UAE wanted to renew its pricey contract to continue using the spyware. Before Emirati leaders committed, they emailed NSO group and requested if it could manage to spy on three selected persons.
“Please find two recordings attached,” a company representative wrote back four days later, according to the emails that the NYT obtained.
Abu Dhabi is also using an Israeli installed surveillance system called Falcon Eye. This system enables Emirati intelligence to monitor practically every single person in the country, a source ostensibly close to Falcon Eye told MEE in 2015.
The source added that Falcon Eye records and analyzes work, social and behavioural patterns. “It sounds like sci-fi but it is happening in Abu Dhabi today,” the source said.
The Emirates are also developing their own spyware to stifle civil society despite attempts to convince the public otherwise. In February 2018, the CEO of the Abu-Dhabi based cybersecurity company Dark-Matter, ensured the Associate Press that his company operates independently of the state.
The truth is less convenient. With the Emirati government comprising 80 percent of DarkMatter’s clientele, Gulf commentators and hackers say that the company has little choice but to spy and monitor its own citizens.
One Italian security expert told Middle East Eye that the company is entrenched in the UAE’s intelligence systems. Former hacker, Simone Margaritelli, added that he had an interview with the company two years ago and was informed that the UAE was creating a surveillance system that could intercept, modify and divert traffic on IP, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.
Margaritelli was reportedly offered a tax-free $15,000 monthly salary to work for the company but refused on ethical grounds. However, spyware companies appear to see no conflict of interest in selling their systems to repressive gulf regimes.
Saudi Arabia has also become notorious for using spyware to monitor dissents in the country and abroad. The regime has long invested in surveillance, purchasing hacking systems from the Italian spy-ware vendor Hacking Team. Leaked emails revealed that Saudi companies paid Hacking Team nearly 5 million euros over a period of five years.
Motherboard, a VICE online magazine that focuses on technology, reported that a Saudi investor purchased 20 percent of Hacking Team after the breach to save it from going under. The emails also revealed that Saud Al-Qahtani – sometimes referred to as the kingdom’s Steve Bannon – was Saudi Arabia’s main interlocutor with Hacking Team. Al-Qahtani is the same man that masterminded the murder of Jamal Khashoggi via Skype, according to Reuters.
The race to purchase spyware in Gulf states severely concerns rights groups and some western governments. Amnesty International, for one, had one of their employees spied on by Pegasus software. After expressing outrage, the rights group has pressured governments, and particularly Israel, to crackdown on these spyware companies.
“Amnesty International will not stand idly by as companies such as NSO Group profit from selling their invasive Pegasus software to repressive states around the world,” said Dana Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty International Tech.
“As the Israeli Ministry of Defense refused our request to revoke the export license of [NSO Group] it is clear that we now need to take additional legal steps to expose the truth and seek accountability against us.”