A New York Times reporter was allegedly targeted with spyware linked to Saudi Arabia in 2018, at a time when the kingdom was targeting several Saudi dissidents around the world.
A new report by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School found that Ben Hubbard, who has written a book about Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, was targeted by spyware known as “Pegasus”, which is made by Israel’s NSO Group.
The news, which was also reported by Hubbard in the New York Times, represents the latest revelation about how Saudi Arabia has allegedly used spyware owned by NSO Group, among other technologies, to target dissidents and journalists.
The attempted hack – in late June 2018 – occurred about six weeks after a phone belonging to Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post, is alleged to have been targeted by Saudi Arabia after receiving a WhatsApp message from the account of Mohammed bin Salman. An unrelated private investigation has found that the hack probably resulted in the exfiltration of large amounts of data from Bezos’s phone.
Two independent United Nations investigators are investigating the matter and have expressed confidence in the conclusions of the investigation that was commissioned by Bezos and conducted by FTI Consulting. Saudi Arabia has called the allegation “absurd”.
“This is yet another example of a journalist being targeted for doing their job. Efforts to intimidate journalists and potential sources should be of concern to everyone. We will stay focused on our mission to seek the truth and help people understand the world,” said a spokesperson for the New York Times.
According to Hubbard’s own account, the reporter received an Arabic text message on his mobile phone on 21 June 2018 that read “Ben Hubbard and the story of the Saudi royal family” and a link to a website, arabnews365.com. Hubbard said the link struck him as “fishy”, so he declined to click on it.
“The attempt on my phone, a month after the reported hack of Mr Bezos, was less dramatic but no less scary in its implications,” Hubbard wrote. “An examination of my phone turned up no indications that it has been compromised, but technology researchers who inspected the message I received concluded that I was targeted with powerful software sold by NSO Group, an Israeli company, and deployed by hackers working for Saudi Arabia.”
Hubbard, who is an American, said he was the fifth person that had been identified by name by researchers at Citizen Lab as having been “hacked by operators that appeared to be working for Saudi Arabia”. The four others are: Omar Abdulaziz, a dissident based in Canada who was close to Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist, Ghanem al-Masarir, the London-based satirist, dissident Yahya Assiri, and a staff member of Amnesty International. All five were allegedly targeted between May and June in 2018.
Citizen Lab was not involved in any of the analysis into the alleged hack of Bezos. But the alleged hack of the Amazon chief executive occurred on 1 May 2018, in line with the other alleged attempts to hack the three dissidents, the Amnesty activist, and Hubbard. The investigation into the alleged Bezos hack did not conclude the kind of malware that was allegedly used to target him.
An NSO spokesman reportedly told Hubbard that it was “entirely deceptive” to suggest that its technology was responsible for all such phone hacking attempts, because other companies offered similar tools.
NSO has said that its technology is only designed to be used by clients to fight terrorism and other crimes. It has said it investigates allegations that its technology is abused.
Hubbard said that the alleged attempt on his phone came after he covered Saudi Arabia for five years, and a more recent focus on Prince Mohammed.
NSO on Tuesday said it was wrong to assume that “every missed call, SMS, or video call is Pegasus”.
NSO also criticised Citizen Lab, which has been at the forefront of seeking to expose allegations of abuse by cyberwarfare companies.
“Regardless of CitizenLab’s enduring efforts to accuse NSO Group as being responsible for every alleged cyber intelligence misuse, NSO Group is proud of its work in assisting law enforcement agencies around the globe who are on the frontlines fighting serious organised crime and terrorism,and saving lives,” NSO said.