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Israeli firm provided phone-hacking services to Saudi Arabia: Report

The report by The Marker says that Cellebrite was also active in the kingdom at the time of Jamal Khashoggi's murder in October 2018
Cellebrite says its technology serves 154 countries and that it has been used to make convictions in 5 million cases of serious crime (AFP)

A controversial Israeli security firm provided phone hacking services to Saudi Arabia, an Israeli newspaper has revealed.

A representative of Cellebrite arrived in Riyadh in November 2019 on a commercial flight from London and was escorted through passport control without his passport being stamped or his electronic equipment being checked, The Marker, Haaretz’s sister publication, reported.

Cellebrite claims to serve police and security forces in 150 countries. It has courted controversy in recent months over its work for police involved in suppressing protests in Hong Kong.

The man, a foreign national, was then taken to an isolated hotel room to carry out the job of hacking and copying information from a phone that was in the possession of the Saudi Justice Ministry. 

The Marker said a Samsung S10 phone was hacked at the request of the general prosecutor’s office in Riyadh, but did not know the identity of the owner. The man returned to London soon afterwards.

Cellebrite was also working in Saudi Arabia at the time of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul in October 2018, the report said.

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However, Omar Abdulaziz, a Canadian-based Saudi activist brought a case against another Israeli security firm, NSO, alleging that its software had been used to track his conversations with his friend Khashoggi, a Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist.

NSO denied the allegations at the time, but reports indicated that it had offered Saudi intelligence officials software that would let them hack cellphones, months before Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman began a purge of dissidents.

When Cellebrite CEO Yossi Carmil was asked by the Israeli Ynet news in October 2019 about the ethical differences between the services provided by his company and NSO, he expressed outrage.

Cellebrite worked in the law-enforcement sector, “which is very limited in its authority, unlike the world of the clients of NSO and others, where illegal things as well as covert things are done. Cellebrite is entirely in the good zone, with judicial orders. We don’t create hacking devices for private entities or espionage agencies.”

Cellebrite says its technology serves 154 countries and that it has been used to make convictions in five million cases of serious crime. Its clients include the American FBI.

Its technology makes it possible to hack into smartphones and transfer all of the information from them and can retrieve deleted data.

Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic or official ties with Israel, unlike the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which signed normalisation agreements on Tuesday with Tel Aviv under US President Donald Trump's sponsorship.

The kingdom however has allowed the use of its airspace for flights between the countries.