Israel’s NSO Group has canceled a contract with the United Arab Emirates to use its powerful state-owned spy tool, Pegasus, because the ruler of Dubai used it to hack the phones of his ex-wife and some people close to her, her lawyers told England High Court.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, ordered the hacking of six phones belonging to Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, her lawyers and security services. The High Court of England delivered a judgment, which was made public. on Wednesday.
The hack happened last year during the ongoing multimillion-dollar battle for custody of their two children in London.
During the hearing, the court heard that the NSO had canceled its contract with the UAE for violating the rules for the use of Pegasus, a sophisticated “wiretapping” system used to collect data from the mobile devices of specific suspected major criminals or terrorists.
“Whenever there is a suspicion of misuse, NSO investigates, NSO warns, NSO ceases to operate,” the NSO said in a statement, which licenses its software only to government intelligence and law enforcement.
He said he shut down six systems of past clients, contracts worth more than $ 300 million (roughly Rs 2,250 crore). The NSO did not go into details.
Sheikh rejected the court’s findings, saying they were based on an incomplete picture.
“I have always denied the charges against me and continue to do so,” he said in a statement.
The hacking of Haya and those associated with her, including her lawyer Fiona Shackleton, a member of the UK House of Lords, became known in early August last year.
A cyber expert investigating the possible use of Pegasus against an activist from the UAE discovered that the phones had been hacked and passed on the information, according to documents and testimony provided to the court.
At the same time, a whistleblower notified NSO that the software was being misused to target Hayya and her legal team, a source familiar with the company told Reuters.
He immediately informed Cherie Blair, a prominent British lawyer hired by the NSO to work as an external human rights adviser, to get the princess a warning.
The company shut down the client’s system within two hours and then prohibited other clients from using Pegasus to target UK numbers, the source said. This measure is still valid today.
Blair, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said in a statement in court: “During a conversation with a senior NSO manager, I remember asking him if their client is a large state or a small state, the manager explained that it was a small state which I mistook for the state of Dubai. “
She told Shackleton that the NSO immediately stopped the country involved in the use of Pegasus and demanded answers.
“Cherie Blair said that if they didn’t use software to find real terrorists, they would have a problem,” Haye’s lawyer Charles Geeky told the court. “Her client did not want to be associated with this type of behavior and wanted to help.”
In a letter to the court dated December 14 last year, NSO announced that it had terminated the contract with its client, whose name the company refused to name.
“As explained in a December 2020 letter from NSO, following an investigation, NSO took extreme measures to stop its client’s use of Pegasus software,” Judge Andrew MacFarlane, President of the Family Division for England and Wales, said in the ruling.
“From a commercial point of view, this step should be understood as significant.”
In recent months, NSO’s Pegasus project has become the focus of international attention after several reports that governments have used spyware to illegally target human rights defenders, journalists and politicians.
In October 2019, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against NSO, accusing it of helping government spies infiltrate the phones of approximately 1,400 users across four continents, including diplomats, political dissidents and senior government officials.
The company had about 45 countries as clients, the source said, but refused to do business with 90 others because they could not trust them on human rights issues.
© Thomson Reuters 2021