Hacker (illustration)
Hacker (illustration) iStock

Israel encouraged its companies to work with Saudi Arabia, despite concerns the kingdom was abusing Israeli spyware, The New York Times reported.

According to the Times, Israel secretly authorized several cybersurveillance companies to work with the Saudi kingdom, despite international criticism of Saudi Arabia's use of surveillance software to crush dissent and despite the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Following Khashoggi's murder in 2018, the NSO Group canceled its contracts with Saudi Arabia. However, the Israeli government encouraged NSO and two others to continue working with the kingdom, and approved a new license for a fourth company to do so as well, a senior Israeli official and three individuals associated with the companies said.

The New York Times added that Israel's Defense Ministry also licensed a company called Candiru to work with Saudi Arabia. Last week, Microsoft accused Candiru of helping its government clients spy on journalists, politicians, and activists, citing an investigation conducted together with the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.

Verint and Quadream were also licensed to work with Saudi Arabia, the site said.

According to Haaretz, a fifth company, Cellebrite, also sold services to the Saudi government, but lacked Ministry approval to do so.

According to the Times, Saudi Arabia has continued to use the software to monitor dissidents and political opponents.

In 2017, NSO sold its Pegasus program to Saudi Arabia; the company has said the program was not used in Khashoggi's murder.

Saudi Arabia has yet to formally recognize Israel.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Ministry told The New York Times that if it "discovers that the purchased item is being used in contravention of the terms of the license, especially after any violation of human rights, a procedure of cancellation of the defense export license or of enforcing its terms is initiated."

In its response to the Times, the Ministry added that "a wide range of security, diplomatic and strategic considerations are taken into account" when considering whether to grant a license to export offensive cyber technology.

In 2018, NSO hired a group of outside consultants, which advised it to cancel its Saudi contracts and systems, due to international outrage over Khashoggi's death. NSO also conducted an internal investigation, which concluded that NSO tools were not involved in Khashoggi's death, though a lawsuit attempted to claim they were.

The Times quoted "several people familiar" with the meetings on the issue as saying that NSO executives said the Israeli government was "strongly encouraging" NSO to stick it out and continue its activities in Saudi Arabia, and that the US government was in support of that as well.

NSO canceled its Saudi Arabia contracts late in 2018. However, after the company was purchased several months later, it renewed its business in Saudi Arabia, albeit with additional restrictions.

In a statement to the Times, NSO said: "As NSO has previously stated, our technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This includes listening, monitoring, tracking or collecting information."

Officials with Candiru, Verint and the government of Saudi Arabia declined to comment. Officials with Quadream could not be reached, the Times added.