A Saudi dissident has filed a lawsuit against an Israeli surveillance company, claiming its sophisticated spyware targeted him and helped lead to the killing of his friend, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The suit, filed in a Tel Aviv court on Sunday, follows others previously filed against the company. But because of the dissident's ties to Khashoggi and his high-profile killing Oct. 2 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, it is likely to shine a greater spotlight on the Israeli company and the Israeli government, which licenses the export of the surveillance technology.
According to the lawsuit, Omar Abdulaziz, a sharp critic on social media of the Saudi royals and a resident of Canada where he has received asylum, said he was friends with Khashoggi and worked with him on a project meant to rein in pro-monarchy Saudi trolls.
The lawsuit says Abdulaziz received and clicked on a link sent to his phone in June 2018 that he argues exposed his mobile communications to Saudi authorities. It says Abdulaziz faced increased harassment by Saudi authorities after he clicked on the link, including against his family members in Saudi Arabia.
"The spying that was directed against (Abdulaziz) and the disclosure of the content of the conversations and messages between him and Khashoggi through the system contributed in a tangible way to the decision to assassinate Mr. Khashoggi by the assassins at the consulate," the lawsuit states, citing news reports and other sources claiming that NSO Group sold Saudi Arabia the technology in 2017 for $55 million.
Abdulaziz is demanding 600,000 shekels — about $160,000 — in damages from the company, as well as an order preventing it from selling its technology, known as "Pegasus," to Saudi Arabia.
In a written statement, NSO Group said the company's technology "enables governments and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime." It said it takes "an extremely scrupulous" approach to the sale of its products, which also undergo vetting and licensing by Israel's defense ministry.
"We do not tolerate misuse of our products. If there is suspicion of misuse, we investigate it and take the appropriate actions, including suspending or terminating a contract," it said.
NSO has been under the spotlight for months after dissidents, journalists and other opposition figures have come forward to claim the company's technology has been used by repressive governments to spy on them.
The new suit comes days after the human rights group said it was considering legal steps to have NSO Group's export license revoked. It said it had made an urgent request to Israel's defense ministry to have the company's export license revoked following the targeting of one of its employees. It said the request was denied.
"We thoroughly reject this inadequate response. The mountain of evidence and reports on NSO Group and the sale of its spyware to human rights-violating regimes is substantial proof that NSO has gone rogue," said Molly Malekar, programs director of Amnesty International Israel.
By continuing to approve of NSO, she added, Israel's defense ministry is practically admitting to knowingly cooperating with a company whose "software is used to commit human rights abuses."