An Israeli technology firm specialising in cyber intelligence offered Saudi Arabia a highly advanced system that hacks into cellphones, months before the kingdom’s crown prince launched a mass purge, according to Haaretz.
The Israeli daily reported on Sunday that representatives from NSO Group Technologies held negotiations with Saudi officials in Austria’s capital, Vienna, in June 2017.
The officials were identified as Abdullah al-Malihi, a close aide to Prince Turki al-Faisal – a senior member of the royal family and a former Saudi intelligence chief – and Nasser al-Qahtani, who presented himself as the deputy of the current intelligence chief.
At the time, NSO was avidly promoting its Pegasus 3 software, an “espionage tool so sophisticated that it does not depend on the victim clicking on a link before the phone is breached,” Haaretz reported.
According to the publication, this was not the first meeting between the two sides as they previously held talks in Cyprus via mediators.
NSO was quoted as saying it acted according to the law and “its products are used in the fight against crime and terror”.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi authorities.
Last month, Edward Snowden, who uncovered the classified surveillance programme of the US National Security Agency, claimed that Pegasus had been used by the Saudi authorities to surveil journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Riyadh has admitted Khashoggi – a Washington Post columnist critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – was killed inside its consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul on October 2.
“They are the worst of the worst,” Snowden said of NSO, whose people he accused of aiding and abetting human rights violations.
The Israeli daily also reported that the system was used to surveil Saudi dissidents living abroad in recent months.
Last year, Saudi security forces arrested several hundred of the richest people in the country, allegedly in an effort to tackle corruption among the higher echelons of the kingdom’s bureaucracy.
Those arrested were locked up for weeks in the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, where some were reportedly physically mistreated.
Experts have suggested that the crown prince used the purge to remove people that could potentially pose a political threat to him.