Committee to Protect Journalists said that the UAE has become a regional epicenter of surveillance, piracy and spying on journalists.
After the 2011 protests rocked the region, authorities redoubled their efforts to monitor the activities of journalists and others whom they saw as potential threats to their power. Governments imported surveillance experts from the U.S. to develop their own monitoring infrastructure and collaborated with allies and erstwhile enemies, such as Israel, to buy and sell surveillance technologies, CPJ has documented.
The United Arab Emirates has become a regional epicenter of surveillance; government operatives allegedly deployed Israeli-based company NSO Group’s technology against journalists with Qatar links, and the country created a surveillance tool with the help of former U.S. government staff, as CPJ documented in December 2020 and January 2019, respectively. (In December, CPJ requested comment from NSO Group via email; the group declined to provide a comment that could be attributed to a named spokesperson.)
Other governments around the region are suspected of having deployed spyware targeting journalists: the Saudi government allegedly monitored several close contacts of Khashoggi before its agents murdered him.
Hacking journalists’ phones
The Guardian revealed that the UAE had used Israeli spyware to hack dozens of Al-Jazeera journalists’ phones.
Researchers from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto said they had discovered what appeared to be a major espionage campaign against one of the world’s leading media organizations.
They noted that the station had long been a thorn in the side of many authoritarian regimes in the region.
The report, written by some of the world’s leading researchers in the field of digital surveillance, raised new troubling questions about the apparent vulnerability of Apple’s iPhone, which sought to enhance its reputation for security and adherence to privacy.
In the Citizen Lab, the researchers said that the malicious code they discovered, used by customers of the Israeli NSO group has made almost all iPhones vulnerable, including those who use Apple’s iOS 14 operating system.
Previous reports confirmed the Israeli piracy group NSO use in surveillance campaigns in the UAE against opponents and human rights activists.
Al-Jazeera phones’ hacking is part of a long series of human rights violations carried out by the police on behalf of their clients, including the alleged targeting of journalists in Morocco, political opponents in Rwanda, and pro-democracy clerics in Togo.