Undercover agents have targeted researchers who found out that an Israeli spyware firm had helped Saudi Arabia spy on the communications of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi before his murder last year.
According to the Associated Press, men disguising themselves as socially conscious investors have lured members of the Canadian internet watchdog Citizen Lab to upscale hotels to ask them for hours about their work exposing Israeli surveillance.
Two such incidents have taken place in the past two months during which the experts who believe they were secretly recorded were also quizzed about details of their personal lives, the report said.
Citizen Lab Director Ron Deibert slammed the actions as “a new low.”
“We condemn these sinister, underhanded activities in the strongest possible terms,” he said in a statement. “Such a deceitful attack on an academic group like the Citizen Lab is an attack on academic freedom everywhere.”
Whom these agents are working for remains an enigma, the report said, noting that the operatives’ tactics recall those of private investigators who assume elaborate fake identities to gather intelligence or compromising material on critics of powerful figures in government or business.
In October, the University of Toronto-based lab confirmed that Saudi Arabia used NSO Group’s controversial software, known as Pegasus, to monitor the online activities of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi opponent and a friend of Khashoggi, only months before the grisly murder.
Omar later filed a lawsuit against the Israeli spyware firm for helping Riyadh spy on his communications and kill the dissident journalist.
Last month, a report in the Washington Post said the Israeli regime had been directly involved in the sale of sophisticated spyware to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom purge and assassinate dissidents.
The Post said in its report that Israel’s ministry of military affairs had authorized the NSO Group to sell Pegasus, a patch of highly complicated software used for hacking and espionage, to the kingdom.
The targeted researchers Bahr Abdel-Razzak and John Scott-Railton said they didn’t want to speculate about who was involved. But both said they believed they were being steered toward making controversial comments that could be used to defame Citizen Lab’s reputation.
“It could be they wanted me to say, ‘Yes, I hate Israel,’ or ‘Yes, Citizen Lab is against NSO because it’s Israeli,’” said Abdel-Razzak, a Syrian refugee who works at Citizen Lab.