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PoliticsMiddle East

Will the Israel deal open the way for Emirati repression?

Tom Allinson
August 21, 2020

The UAE has covertly worked with Israeli cyber offense experts to target Emirati rights activists. Now that the two countries have normalized ties, there are fears of an increased crackdown.

The Darkmatter cybersecurity building in Abu Dhabi
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Gambrel

Directly after Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed a deal normalizing ties between their countries last week, prominent Emirati social media accounts, some with links to government, warned that anyone in the UAE criticizing the deal should be reported to authorities.

One post linked to an app released by the Attorney General's Office, allowing users to easily report tweets that threaten "the basic principles of social security." In the past, critical social media posts have resulted in detention, forced disappearances and torture, contributing to a climate of fear, experts and activists say.

Such open repression of free expression matches the UAE's more covert means of silencing dissidents through long-standing cooperation with Israeli cyber-surveillance companies.

That relationship is expected to grow stronger under the new deal, paving the way for "increased surveillance and policing of speech, not just domestically but regionally too," Hiba Zayadin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.

Israeli hardware and software have allowed Emirati authorities to "control any activity in the public and private space," said Andreas Krieg, a risk consultant and professor at the Defense Studies Department of King's College London. "It has contributed to a constraint of the freedom of speech over the past decade that is unprecedented in its rigidity, even in the Gulf."

A history of hacking

One of the most high-profile Emirati rights activists, Ahmed Mansoor, was targeted by the Israel-based NSO Group's Pegasus spyware in 2016, Khalid Ibrahim, the executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, told DW.

Human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor showing a screenshot of spoof messages on his phone
UAE human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for damaging the country's unityImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Gambrel

After hacking his Twitter account, "They sent him a text message with a link to a case of torture," Ibrahim said. "But he didn't click the link. He sent it to [Canadian group] Citizen Lab, and when they did the analysis, they discovered it was a link that will transform his cell phone into a spying device."

Mansoor was convicted of damaging the country's unity in a closed trial in 2017, sentenced to 10 years in jail and is now held in solitary confinement.

A 2018 lawsuit against NSO Group featured emails showing the firm offered Emirati officials proof of its software's effectiveness by secretly recording the phone calls of a London-based Arab newspaper editor, Abdul Aziz al-Khamis. Murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his exiled colleague Omar Abdulaziz were also allegedly targeted by the spyware.

Read moreOmar Abdulaziz: A critic of Saudi Arabia becomes a target

In February, an NSO Group spokesperson told DW the firm would remove its software license from customers who use its products for human rights violations. An NSO Group spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

Teaching the trade

Israel NSO Group building
Rights activists have accused Israel's NSO Group of turning a blind eye to the alleged misuse of its technologyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Cheslow

More recently, the UAE branched into developing its own surveillance tools using US and Israeli expertise, multiple investigations  have found.

In 2017, UAE company DarkMatter lured a wave of ex-Israel Defense Forces employees of NSO to work for it, with salaries as high as $1 million (€900,000). DarkMatter hacked the iPhones of hundreds of activists, political leaders and suspected terrorists, according to a Reuters investigation.

Just last year, a firm allegedly linked to DarkMatter released a messaging app called ToTok in the UAE, where similar platforms like Skype and WhatsApp are banned. An investigation byThe New York Times found ToTok was actually used by the Emirati government "to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones."

ToTok's sole shareholder was listed as the Emirati company Group 42, whose CEO ran a subsidiary of DarkMatter for years, according to databases seen by the Associated Press. Group 42 denied any connection with DarkMatter.

Just before the normalization deal was announced, Group 42 announced a deal to cooperate on coronavirus solutions with Israel Aerospace Industries' Elta Division, considered a world leader in cyber defense technology.

"With Israeli technology being world leading and the UAE building a 21st century surveillance state with deep penetration into countries in the region, both have seen this as a win-win," Krieg said. "Such relationships are only possible because the Israeli security establishment has sanctioned it."

DarkMatter, a spokesperson for the UAE Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Israeli Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Read moreTechnology must 'foster, not hinder, free speech'

Surveilling the streets

Past cooperation has seen such surveillance extended into physical space as well.

In 2015, Emirati authorities contracted Israeli businessman Mati Kochavi's company Asia Global Technology to set up a civil surveillance project in Abu Dhabi called Falcon Eye.

Officials say the thousands of cameras across the city are used to monitor traffic and unlawful gatherings. But a source close to the companies involved told Middle East Eye, a London-based outlet some complain to be anti-Emirati, "Every person is monitored from the moment they leave the doorstep to the moment they return to it."

Tel Aviv city hall lit up with the UAE flag
Israel and the UAE have long-standing covert security tiesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/O. Balilty

Cyber proliferation

With Israeli officials also encouraging Gulf countries such as Bahrain and Oman to move toward normalization, such security ties might expand across the region.

Read moreMixed reaction to historic agreement between Israel and UAE

"A deal with Bahrain would provide opportunities for Israeli AI and cyber companies, however, it would be much harder for them to receive an export license of know-how and technology," Krieg said. "Any proliferation of expertise in this field to Bahrain would likely come indirectly via Abu Dhabi, which for Israel has become a new intel hub in the Gulf."

The proliferation of such tools is also not restricted to the UAE and Israel.

Companies from Canada to Italy have also sold hacking tools to regional rulers to repress freedom of expression, says Ibrahim, pointing to Qatar as well as UAE as examples of repressive regional states.

"The EU says all the time human rights are at the very heart of our way," said Ibrahim. "But when it's about the cooperation of European companies with oppressive governments in relation to civilians, they've really done very little."

Spying on the coronavirus

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