A Saudi dissident has filed a lawsuit against an Israeli surveillance company, claiming its sophisticated spyware targeted him and helped lead to the killing of his friend, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The suit, filed in a Tel Aviv court on Sunday, follows others previously filed against the company. But because of its links to the international outrage over the killing of Khashoggi, it is likely to shine a larger spotlight on the company and the Israeli government, which licenses the export of the surveillance technology.
The company called the lawsuit “completely unfounded,” saying it shows “no evidence that the company's technology was used.”
Israel's Defense Ministry declined to comment on its export policies.
According to the lawsuit, Omar Abdulaziz, a sharp online critic of the Saudi royals and a resident of Canada where he has received asylum, said he was friends with Khashoggi and worked with him on a project meant to rein in pro-monarchy Saudi trolls.
Abdulaziz received and clicked on a link sent to his phone in June 2018 that he says exposed his mobile communications to Saudi authorities. The lawsuit says Abdulaziz faced increased harassment by Saudi authorities after he clicked on the link, including the detention of family members in Saudi Arabia.
Abdulaziz plans to argue that his cooperation with Khashoggi was “a crucial factor” in the decision to have the U.S.-based columnist for The Washington Post killed and that there was a direct link between the surveillance carried out on Abdulaziz and the slaying.
A 15-member team sent from Riyadh strangled and dismembered Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two months ago. His remains have yet to be found.
Turkey says the orders for the killing came from the highest levels of the Saudi government, but not King Salman. The Saudi agents blamed for the killing include some members of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's security entourage.
After weeks of denying any knowledge of Khashoggi's death, Saudi authorities acknowledged that he was killed in the consulate, saying a team of agents sent to retrieve him had exceeded their authority.
“The spying that was directed against [Abdulaziz] and the disclosure of the content of the conversations and messages between him and Khashoggi through the system contributed significantly to the decision to assassinate Mr. Khashoggi by the assassins at the consulate,” the lawsuit states.
It cites news reports and other sources claiming that NSO Group sold Saudi Arabia the technology in 2017 for $55 million.
The lawsuit says Abdulaziz was notified that his phone was compromised by internet watchdog Citizen Lab, which says it has used an internet survey technique to identify suspected spyware infections linked to the Israeli company.
Abdulaziz is demanding 600,000 shekels — about $160,000 — in damages from the company, as well as an order preventing it from selling its technology, known as “Pegasus,” to Saudi Arabia.
The NSO Group's smartphone-hacking technology has emerged as a favorite for authorities seeking to crush dissent across the Middle East and Latin America. The Israeli firm's software is part of a larger family of malware that allows spies to take remote control of phones from anywhere in the world — turning the devices in targets' pockets into powerful surveillance tools.
In a written statement, NSO Group disputed some details in the lawsuit and said it “appears to be based on a collection of press clippings that have been generated for the sole purpose of creating news headlines and do not reflect the reality of NSO's work.”
The company said its products “are licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime in the modern age.” It said it takes “an extremely scrupulous” approach to the sale of its products, which also undergo vetting and licensing by Israel's Defense Ministry.
In an earlier statement it said: “We do not tolerate misuse of our products. If there is suspicion of misuse, we investigate it and take the appropriate actions, including suspending or terminating a contract,” it said.
NSO has been under the spotlight for months as dissidents, journalists and other opposition figures have claimed the company's technology has been used by repressive governments to spy on them. These include Mexican and Qatari journalists who have already filed lawsuits against the company and an Amnesty International employee who was allegedly targeted by the software.
The new suit comes days after Amnesty said it was considering legal steps to have NSO Group's export license revoked. It said it had made an urgent request to Israel's Defense Ministry to revoke the company's export license following the targeting of one of its employees. It said the request was denied.
“We thoroughly reject this inadequate response. The mountain of evidence and reports on NSO Group and the sale of its spyware to human rights-violating regimes is substantial proof that NSO has gone rogue,” said Molly Malekar, programs director of Amnesty International Israel.
By continuing to approve NSO's export license, she added, Israel is practically admitting to knowingly cooperating with a company whose “software is used to commit human rights abuses.”