The Pegasus Project: UAE as a Model

A massive info leak suggests an apparent attempt by the United Arab Emirates to leverage "Israeli NSO’s spy technology" on Alaa Siddiqi and Ahmad Mansour.

  • The Israeli spyware has been used to spy on Emiratis
    The Israeli spyware has been used to spy on Emiratis

This spyware is a breach of personal privacy and a fraudulent access to personal electronic devices, and this would definitely lead to criminal association. Freedom of expression of journalists - which is the foundation of their work - is jeopardized. The consequences of this is critical and might lead to criminal activity. This spyware was developed with cutting edge technology which requires massive investments, research and development activity. This requires states intervention and a consortium of organizations to contribute to this spyware.
- Dr. Hasan Youness, university professor and researcher in international business management. 

The "Israeli NSO Group", which is a surveillance company located in "Herzliya, Israel," has sold its infamous Pegasus spyware for hundreds of millions of dollars to a number of countries around the world in recent years - that includes the United Arab Emirates.

Hacking: The UAE’s Favorite Weapon

The Israeli spyware has been used to spy on Emirati journalists, activists, and dissidents with the encouragement and official mediation of the Israeli government, according to Israeli media outlets.

According to the NY Times, the UAE has been using Pegasus since 2013. It employed the program to infect individuals' phones by sending them text messages, inviting them to click on an attached link. The NSO affiliate suggested texts with messages such as: “Ramadan is near — incredible discounts,” as well as, “Keep your car tires from exploding in the heat.”

When a target clicks on the link, Pegasus is downloaded onto the device and hacks it. The software can track calls and contacts, harvest passwords, reach text messages and emails, record calls, and trace the user's whereabouts. However, Pegasus has become much more sophisticated over time, and its most recent software can breach a person's phone, record audio and video, and obtain data without sending any link, thus a zero-click attack..

The Game Is Up

The Pegasus Project and the current sweeping investigation revealed that the UAE has targeted 10,000 phone numbers with the assistance of the “Israeli firm NSO Group.” The astonishingly long list of Abu Dhabi targets includes journalists, activists, and dissidents. 

Emirati targets:

The UAE has secretly turned the smartphones of dissidents at home or abroad into surveillance devices.

To fully understand the extent to which journalists and human rights activists are targeted by the UAE, which spent millions to purchase spyware technology, the Pegasus Project has managed to verify the identity of some targeted Emirati individuals. Many of the individuals who were targeted have received threats, others have been detained and defamed. In a few cases, journalists were murdered after being targeted. Some had to live in exile, only to find themselves kept 'hostage' under surveillance - among them were Alaa Siddiqi and Ahmad Mansour.

Alaa Siddiqi

Alaa Siddiqi, an icon of the Emirati human rights movement, died “in a collision near Oxfordshire, on June 20,” according to media reports. At the time, statements mourning the young woman and inquisitions regarding the circumstances of her death flooded the social media networks.

She was the Executive Director of the London-based human rights group ALQST. Alaa was also the daughter of Mohammad Al-Siddiq, a political dissident who has been in UAE jails since 2013.

Siddiq was granted asylum in the United Kingdom in 2018 after escaping the UAE during the country's anti-dissent campaign between 2011 and 2012. She worked as a volunteer with ALQST before becoming Director of Diwan London, and then Executive Director of ALQST.

Her last tweet was “Only when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed… will our work be done."

Meanwhile, human rights groups are recently calling on the UK to open a thorough investigation into the death of Alaa.

On her part, Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based human rights organization, urged the UK to prove Siddiq's death was an accident rather than a targeted killing.

"We need UK authorities to reassure us that no foul play was involved, given the Emirati and Saudi government's record of surveilling, targeting, and harassing activists and their families abroad," Whitson said in a statement on June 20, 2021.

According to the British newspaper The Telegraph, Khalid Ibrahim, Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, also urged a thorough police investigation, stressing that "Alaa was in danger all the time."

"We work in a very hostile environment, and governments like those in the Gulf are using surveillance technology to hack into our accounts," Ibrahim told The Telegraph. "We all know what happened to Jamal Khashoggi," he concluded.

So far, the UAE government has not commented on her death.

Ahmad Mansoor 

Ahmed Mansoor is an internationally recognized UAE-based human rights defender and the recipient of the Martin Ennals Award (also known as a "Nobel Prize for Human Rights").

Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison on May 2018 by the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals. He was sentenced on charges regarding his peaceful criticism of government policies and modest calls for human rights reform, according to the Human Rights Watch.

On December 31, 2018, the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court, the court of last resort, upheld his sentence, suppressing his final chance at early release. Both trials were sealed and the authorities have declined all requests to make the charge sheet and court rulings public. Since his arrest, Mansoor has been confined to an isolation cell, deprived of basic necessities, and denied his rights as a prisoner under international human rights law. 

On August 2016, a report by Citizen Lab revealed that the NSO's iOS Zero-Click Zero-Days program was used against a UAE human rights defender, Ahmad Mansoor.

The report unmasked that “Mansoor received SMS text messages on his iPhone on August 10 and 11, 2016, promising new secrets" about detainees tortured in UAE jails if he clicked on an included link. Rather than clicking, Mansoor forwarded the messages to Citizen Lab researchers. The latter identified the links as belonging to Pegasus.

Simultaneously, the report added "this is the third commercial 'lawful intercept' spyware suite used in an attempt to compromise Mansoor." He was targeted with FinFisher's FinSpy spyware in 2011, and Hacking Team's Remote Control System in 2012.

No One Spared 

According to a media report, 300 Lebanese figures were targeted by the Pegasus spyware, which was revealed in a recent data leak.

Among these figures is former Prime Minister Saad Hariri who was targeted by the UAE.

Furthermore, the entire Lebanese political class was collectively monitored between the years 2017 and 2019.

Analysis of the leaked list revealed that Durov, the founder of Telegram, has been of interest to the UAE, according to The Guardian.

The UAE and Dubai did not respond to requests for comments on the allegations regarding Durov, according to the same report.