The Israeli government gave permission to the company manufacturing the phone-hacking spyware Pegasus to Saudi Arabia, the Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday.
The use of the software, called Pegasus and developed by a private Israeli company NSO group, was reported Sunday by the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde and other news outlets who collaborated on an investigation into a data leak.
The leak was of a list of up to 50,000 phone numbers believed to have been identified as people of interest by clients of NSO, among whom was Saudi Arabia, the reports said. Among the numbers found on the list were two belonging to women close to Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by a Saudi hit squad in 2018.
In the latest piece on the data leak published by the Guardian, which part of the newspaper's "The Pegasus project" series, the news outlet claims the NSO Group had been "given explicit permission by the Israeli government" to sell the spyware to the Saudis back in 2017.
Representatives from the NSO Group then met with Saudi officials in the summer of 2017 in Vienna, Cyprus and Riyadh. The Israeli businesspeople reportedly demonstrated to the Saudis how the spyware can take over an iPhone and even remotely operate its camera.
“You don’t need to understand the language to see they were amazed and excited and that they saw what they needed to,” said a source who attended the meeting in June 2017 in Cyprus with senior Saudi intelligence officials.
The NSO eventually sold the spyware to Saudis in a deal reportedly worth at least $55m.
“In Israel there is a strong political movement to make diplomacy through business,” said the source. “Business first, diplomacy later. When you make a deal together, it opens a lot of doors to diplomacy.”