Bill Marczak was in the midst of a phone hack investigation involving a political activist from the United Arab Emirates when he came across something he hadn’t expected.
Mr. Marczak is a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and is a leading expert on Pegasus, sophisticated spyware commonly used by repressive regimes to monitor political opponents and journalists.
Pegasus is unique in that it does not require the target to be tricked into clicking a link to download a subversive program. Instead, it connects the phone to servers that allow someone to read text messages, emails, and access everything from Facebook accounts to Skype, WhatsApp and even the microphone and camera. from the phone.
As Mr Marczak analyzed a Pegasus hack on the UAE dissident’s phone, he noticed that a UK law firm called Payne Hicks and Beach had also been targeted. A quick Google search revealed that one of the firm’s attorneys, Fiona Shackleton, who is a member of the House of Lords, represented the ex-wife of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Prime Minister and leader. of Dubai, one of the seven emirates.
“I was quite surprised when I saw this,” Marczak recalled in an interview from his home in California. “The immediate possibility that came to my mind was, well, that there is potentially espionage against lawyers in this case. I’d better get in touch with them.
He alerted the cabinet on August 5, 2020 and offered to find out who was behind the espionage. The lawyers agreed and within weeks Mr Marczak had uncovered a massive Pegasus surveillance operation targeting Baroness Shackleton and another PHB lawyer Nicholas Manners. The targets also included the sheikh’s ex-wife – Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein – and three of his employees who all live in Britain.
In a 42-page report, Mr Marczak found the hack to be so extensive that UAE agents downloaded 265 megabytes of data from Princess Haya’s phone, which equates to 24 hours of voice recordings. digital or 500 photographs.
Her report was only revealed last week when UK courts unsealed hundreds of pages of documents related to the divorce battle between Sheikh Mohammed, a billionaire friend of Queen Elizabeth, and Princess Haya, the daughter. of the late King Hussein of Jordan. The Citizen Lab’s findings raised new questions about the nefarious use of Pegasus and prompted Britain to rethink its relationship with the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s pretty scary that this material can be deployed with a single click and there really isn’t any effective oversight or regulation,” Marczak said. “It is highly respected members of British society who are being spied on. “
The split between Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya dates back to April 2019, when the princess fled from Dubai to England with the couple’s two children; Jalila, 13, and Zayed, 9. Sheikh Mohammed immediately requested a court order for the children to be returned to Dubai and most of the proceedings were conducted in private. It wasn’t until last week that it became clear how far the Sheikh was willing to go.
According to the documents, a series of judges had established that Princess Haya, 47, had good reason to fear for her safety and that of the children. Sheikh Mohammed, 72, had previously abducted his two adult daughters, Shamsa and Latifa, after they tried to escape. In 2000, Shamsa was taken by United Arab Emirates agents to England while Latifa was kidnapped from a yacht in international waters off the coast of India in 2018. Both have been imprisoned in Dubai for years and their movements remain controlled.
Court documents showed Sheikh Mohammed waged a long media campaign against Princess Haya after her departure and wrote poems calling for her death. “I feel like I’m being hunted,” Princess Haya told the court. “I feel like the walls are closing in on me, that I cannot protect the children and that we are not safe anywhere. “
Princess Haya has become so concerned for her safety that Judge Andrew McFarlane has agreed to impose a limited no-fly zone over the Princess’s home in Berkshire to stop surveillance drones and prevent helicopters from flying. melt away and catch the kids.
He also approved a 100-meter “no-entry cordon” around his house and prohibited Sheikh Mohammed from acquiring any neighboring property. Sir Andrew’s order came after lawyers for Princess Haya discovered that the Sheikh had secretly attempted to buy a 70-acre estate nearby for £ 30million ($ 51million).
The phone hack was further evidence of Sheikh Mohammed’s abuse of power, the courts have ruled. Surveillance “was not just another example of [Sheik Mohammed] be prepared to use the UAE state arm to achieve its own goals with regard to the women in your family, but also other evidence of harassment and intimidation, ”Judge Julian Flaux said. Sir Andrew added that the Sheikh was “ready to endorse those who act on his behalf doing so illegally in the UK”
The revelations prompted the British government to reconsider its relations with the United Arab Emirates. “Some of us have been concerned for some time that foreign states are interested in MP phones and emails, and I hope that will act as a wake-up call,” said Chris Bryant, Labor MP. The House of Commons Special Committee on Foreign Affairs is also considering taking up the matter.
The UK Foreign Office has yet to comment on the hack in detail, but described the “UK-UAE bilateral relationship as strong.” The government is also continuing trade negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is made up of six countries, including the United Arab Emirates.
In a statement last week, Sheikh Mohammed said the findings were based on an “incomplete picture” and unfair disclosure of evidence. “These cases concern supposed state security operations,” he added. “As a head of government involved in private family proceedings, it was not appropriate for me to provide evidence on such sensitive issues, either personally or through my advisers in a foreign court. “
The company that developed and sells Pegasus, Israel-based NSO Group, said in a court filing that it created the technology to help law enforcement pursue terrorists and criminals. “Human rights protections are embedded in all aspects of NSO’s work,” the company said. NSO added that it had investigated the hack and terminated a customer contract, although it did not specify the customer.
Mr Marczak said he doubts NSO has canceled all of its contracts with the UAE as the country is a major customer. But he said Sheikh Mohammed’s actions should be a warning to the company and others.
“Any sort of rational person, even doing a basic UAE search on Google, would understand that this is not a place you want to sell spyware because they have a long history of misusing the spyware. spyware, ”he said. “By spying on your ex-wife and her lawyers, you really cannot argue for any connection to terrorism. “
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