THIS INVESTIGATION IS PART OF THE JUSTICE FOR JOURNALISTS FOUNDATION INVESTIGATIVE GRANT PROGRAMME AND WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY DARAJ).
This investigation is part of a project that exposes the latest technologies for breaching and spying on Arab female journalists and human rights activists, and the impact of breaches like Pegasus and similar technologies on the personal and professional lives of female journalists.
Cyber espionage first emerged in the Arab world during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Arab regimes then were determined to quell the protests using any means necessary. On the ground, these regimes employed repressive security measures, while on social media, they censored posts and cut off internet access. Behind the scenes of dispersing the demonstrations, these regimes utilized espionage systems to track and gather information on protesters, journalists, and prominent activists, which they then used to threaten them.
The Pegasus investigations, in which Daraj was the only Arab partner, in collaboration with Forbidden Stories, revealed the involvement of many Arab governments, including Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, in purchasing the Pegasus Spyware, developed by the Israeli intelligence company NSO. Despite the fact that the Arab Spring has come to an end, spyware programs continue to be used today, having advanced with the application of artificial intelligence. Paradoxically, though, because of the high expenses these nations bear and the reliance that espionage places on them—especially with Israel emerging as the world’s epicenter of espionage in recent times—acquiring espionage systems is no longer “profitable” for the governments that buy them, taking its high costs into consideration, as well as the fact that Israel has become the spying capital of the world as of a few years ago.
1. Bahrain and The German FinFisher
Leaked documents revealed that the Bahraini government turned to the German company FinFisher in 2011 to spy on Bahraini activists both domestically and abroad. Prior to its separation, the technology was part of a British company operating under the name Gamma Group. The cost of this technology is 1,445,940 euros for the end-user, allowing the hacking of a range of devices, from one to a maximum of ten. The company also provides buyers with training services on how to use the spying technology. The cost of training four individuals, including the trained engineer’s salary, accommodations, transportation, and meals, was 51,567 euros, according to a leaked document from 2014.
Several human rights organizations have sued the company for exporting spying technologies to Turkey without obtaining approval from the German state. However, EU law stipulates that companies must obtain government approval before exporting surveillance technologies. The human rights organizations that filed the lawsuit are Reporters Without Borders, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), netzpolitik.org, and Global Financing Facility (GFF).
2. Six Arab Countries Purchase the Italian Hacking Team
Leaked WikiLeaks documents from 2015 reveal that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Oman, Egypt, and Morocco imported the Remote Control System technology from the Italian company Hacking Team in 2011. Other documents indicate that Lebanon’s Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau turned to the same company to purchase another technology called Galileo in 2015. The bureau agreed to hack 50 individuals in Lebanon for a sum of 450,000 euros, according to…
In Morocco, leaks have indicated that the Royal Guard imported this technology through the Emirati company Al Fahd, which operates in the technology field. Furthermore, Sudan paid 960,000 euros to acquire the technology in 2012 before the contract was canceled in 2014 due to sanctions imposed on Sudan. The company faced scrutiny by a special United Nations committee that was monitoring sanctions against Sudan. The company was sold in 2019 and the name was changed to Memento Labs.
3. What is the connection between the British company BAE and some Arab countries?
Tunisian authorities purchased the Evident technology from the Danish company ETI in 2011 with the outbreak of protests in Tunisia. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria, Oman, and Morocco subsequently acquired the same technology from the British-owned company British Aerospace BAE, which had taken ownership of it. This technology functions in a manner akin to Google, enabling its users to enter keywords and look up information about particular people.
4. The UAE Monitoring and Control Center buys a spy system from the Israeli Falcon Eye
In 2016, the UAE Monitoring and Control Center announced the installation of a surveillance system that gathers all cameras in public places and government buildings in Abu Dhabi. The company was co-founded by former Israeli intelligence officer Mati Kochavi, then based in the United States.
The UAE justified the move as necessary for maintaining security and peace to complete a surveillance deal worth 600 million US dollars, which had been given in 2011 to Swiss company AGT, the owner of Israeli company Falcon Eye.
This marked the first time in the Arab world that a surveillance system of this magnitude was deployed, and the first time that privacy was traded for security.
5. The UAE Recruits Agents from the US National Security Agency to Target Civilians in 2016
Through the US National Security Agency, the UAE recruited people for Project Raven, which involved spying on people of various nationalities, including Americans. However, US law prohibits former American intelligence agents from spying on their fellow citizens. The spy team was based in Abu Dhabi and received their salaries through the Emirati company DarkMatter. According to Reuters, the team used the Karma technology for espionage until 2019 when iPhone updates decreased its efficacy.
6. The Emirati Company Breej Develops ToTok
According to a report published by The New York Times, the Emirati company Breej developed ToTok for communication in the UAE before the App Store removed it in 2019. Because other communication apps like FaceTime and WhatsApp are banned in the UAE, the application has received over five million downloads from app stores, with the majority of coming from the UAE. Although it wasn’t used as a spy tool, the app—like most apps— required users to grant access to the camera, microphone, and geographical location, allowing user tracking and monitoring.
The app represents a significant step toward enabling government-affiliated companies to independently develop spyware without importing new technologies or depending on third parties.
7. Arab Countries Turn to the Israeli Software Pegasus to Target Journalists and Activists
Several investigations, such as those conducted by the Canadian Citizen Lab, along with the revelations from the Pegasus leaks project led by the Forbidden Stories organization involving 80 journalists from 17 global media outlets, including “Daraj,” collaborated to produce a series of investigations. These investigations, with technical support from Amnesty Security Lab, have uncovered that the governments of the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco have purchased Pegasus, an Israeli spyware developed by NSO, for the purpose of hacking the mobile phones of Arab activists, political opponents, and even the wives of the UAE’s ruler. Notable targeted individuals include Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul and Jordanian Hala Ahed.
This technology operates by identifying weaknesses in the electronic device, allowing the party conducting the surveillance to gain access to the device’s camera, microphone, conversations, location, and more, all without requiring the device owner to interact with a suspicious link. Daraj was the Arab partner in the Pegasus project with Forbidden Stories and its partners, conducting detailed investigations into Pegasus as part of the project.
8. Saudi Arabia, The UAE, and Qatar Buy Israeli Candiru
According to a report by Canadian organization Citizen Lab, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have acquired a surveillance system from the Israeli company Candiru, which specializes in computer surveillance. This system enables the purchasers to breach an unlimited number of computers but permits them to monitor only 10 of them concurrently for 18.9 million dollars. Additionally, for an extra 1.8 million dollars, users can expand their monitoring capabilities to include an additional 15 victims simultaneously.
Users of this technology are prohibited from conducting surveillance on computers located in certain countries, such as Israel, the United States, China, Russia, and Iran. Nevertheless, Microsoft reported a computer breach in Iran by Candiru.
9. The Houthis Use OilAlpha
The Houthis employ SpyNote or SpyMax technologies, which are supplied by the company OilAlpha. This company provides phone surveillance services that involve hacking cameras, microphones, communications, tracking geographic locations, and more. Notably, the nationality of the company is undisclosed. Users can subscribe to this service for a one-time payment of $999, allowing them to hack an unlimited number of phones. The stipulation is that they can only monitor these phones from a single computer per subscription. It’s important to note that the company exclusively accepts payment in digital currency.
In addition to the above, some countries engage in surveillance of their citizens by tapping into mobile phones and monitoring phone lines. This represents a basic form of surveillance technology that offers monitoring capabilities at a relatively low cost. However, it does not provide the means to spy on phones and numbers outside the country. As a result, this technology is typically utilized by smaller nations looking to exert control within their own borders. In contrast, larger governments with ambitions to play a more extensive regional role and exercise influence over neighboring countries may employ more advanced and comprehensive surveillance methods.
For 12 years following the suppression of the Arab uprisings, Arab governments have persisted in employing a range of surveillance technologies. Their aim is to ensure that the surveillance, which targeted activists and protesters during some of the most crucial moments in the modern Arab world’s history, remains effective in silencing them for many years even after the uprisings have concluded.