NSO and Pegasus' Role In the Killing of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi
The Dissident is a chilling documentary on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
"I know why Jamal was killed," says Canada-based Saudi activist and video blogger Omar Abdulaziz, "it's because of me," he concludes thoughtfully.
In Bryan Fogel's brilliant and chilling documentary titled The Dissident, Omar speaks candidly about how he could have unwittingly played a part in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The acclaimed documentary, which premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival last year, is an audio-visual deep dive into the brutal murder of Khashoggi. It highlights the role played by NSO Group Technologies Ltd's Pegasus spyware used by the Saudi government in tracking Khashoggi's activities through his friends like Omar.
Omar's Pegasus Infected Phone Compromised Khashoggi
Omar and Khashoggi were regularly in touch with each other over messages and calls. They discussed their plans to deal with the Saudi government's growing online troll army, muzzling of dissenting voices and human rights violations via text messages.
According to the documentary, Omar, who is now a political refugee in Canada, was approached by a group named The Citizen Lab after Khashoggi's murder. The group then figured how Omar's phone was infected by Pegasus spyware which then lead to the leak of data and information from Omar's phone to servers in Saudi Arabia.
The Citizen Lab is a group of researchers and investigators that try to understand the digital entities that are targeting civil society including its journalists, activists and everyone else that constitutes a healthy, functional democracy.
John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at The Citizen Lab says in Bryan's film, "There's sort of a growing global market for spyware. Governments want to listen to encrypted phone calls. They want to read your WhatsApp chats, your Signal chats, and they can't do it as that chat goes across their network. So their solution to this is - let's hack the phone."
How Omar's Phone Was Infected With Pegasus
What The Citizen Lab found in Montreal after they contacted Omar was that there was a device in the University Network phoning home to a cluster of servers that belonged to Saudi Arabia's Pegasus deployment. As per The Dissident, this essentially meant that Omar's phone was compromised a long time before Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, 2018.
The Citizen Lab also found the exact message on Omar's phone that led to the infection - as described in The Dissident, it's like a DHL shipping tracking notification that Omar would have clicked. So, by hacking into Omar's phone via Pegasus they had all the information they needed on Khashoggi.
"They knew Khashoggi was communicating with activists and dissidents. They knew that he funded us," states Omar in the investigative documentary. It's known that Khashoggi used to work for the Saudi government for decades. He was a legit insider, so he knew their secrets. But ever since he left Saudi Arabia in 2017 and began to write critically of the Saudi government in the Western media, he had become a 'traitor'. "He's not just a journalist, he's a dissident. That's why Jamal was killed," explains Omar in The Dissident.
Though former CIA Director John Brennan neither confirms nor denies whether the Saudi government bought Israeli spyware, he does confirm that the Saudi services have insight into what their citizens and even non-Saudi citizens were doing both inside and outside. While this might not be news, Bryan's documentary confirms that thanks to the Israeli company NSO, Saudis have the best hacking technology that money can buy, namely - Pegasus Version 2.
"Pegasus is a piece of software, but it's also a capability. It's the capability to infect a phone and turn it into a digital spy in the pocket of the victim - siphoning off private and encrypted chats, photographs, messages, even enabling the microphone and the camera, it can turn that phone into a bug in a room," explains John Scott-Railton to his audience on how Pegasus works.
Jeff Bezos' Mobile Phone Was Also Infected
The Dissident also tells us that in a symbolic response to Khashoggi's killing, several US media organisations and business leaders pulled out of a major investment conference in Riyadh, an initiative of Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Jeff Bezos was supposed to be a secret guest at the conference which was popularly called 'Davos in the Desert'. According to the evidence at hand, Bezos had a direct communication line with MBS, they personally messaged each other. Bezos was supposed to announce an enormous deal with the Saudis at the conference. However, after Khashoggi's murder, Bezos stopped all contact with MBS and did not attend the summit.
Khashoggi was a regular columnist for The Washington Post, and since Bezos was the owner of The Washington Post, Khashoggi in a sense worked for Bezos. According to reports, MBS expected Bezos to ask WaPo to downplay Khashoggi's brazen killing. That did not happen.
Bryan's documentary also introduces us to David Kaye, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, who works on the private surveillance industry. David tells us, "After the 'Davos in the Desert', we get know that Bezos' phone has been infected with malware. And the way in which the technology was delivered to his phone was through a text from the Crown Prince himself."
Explaining how they tracked the spyware in Bezos' phone, David says in his interview, "A video was sent in 2018 from MBS' WhatsApp account to Jeff Bezos' phone. Then we see this massive increase in data leaving the phone. It was only after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi that The Washington Post was an important target for Saudi Arabia."
While most of the Indian mainstream journalists continue to desperately downplay the 'Pegasus Gate' and its implications for the Indian state, it would well worth it for them to know how the spyware fatally impacted someone from their own fraternity - Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul one fine day in October 2018, never to return.
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