from domestic repression to geopolitical espionage in the Emirates

By Benjamin Barthe

Published July 21, 2021 at 6:24 p.m. – Updated July 28, 2021 at 11:25 a.m

In the world of techno-surveillance, as in many other fields, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) beats itself above its category. The Gulf Petromonarchy, whose indigenous population is little more than 1 million, has developed a full-scale cyber offensive in a decade. The Federation of Seven Principalities, led by Prince Mohammed Ben Zayed (“MBZ”) from Abu Dhabi, and an army unusually strong for a country on the Arabian Peninsula has become a heavyweight in digital espionage.

This is one of the lessons learned from the survey, coordinated by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, based on a list of 50,000 phone numbers that have been selected or attacked by a dozen countries since 2016 – without all of them being infected – customers of the Israeli company NSO Groups Pegasus -Spyware. In this immense register shared with The world and sixteen other media including the Lebanese online magazine darai10,000 numbers entered on behalf of United Arab Emirates.

As a sophisticated program, Pegasus can not only siphon the content of a smartphone, including messages exchanged through apps like WhatsApp and Signal, but also covertly turn the device into a microphone. Without being able to search all of the smartphones belonging to these 10,000 numbers for technical traces of a break-in, it is not yet possible to say how many devices were actually hacked.

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Of the 67 phones that The world and its “Project Pegasus” partners were able to have 37 checked for signs of infection with Israeli spyware. The Abu Dhabi authorities have been contacted on a number of occasions and have not responded to the consortium’s requests for a response. For its part, NSO denies the veracity of the information published by the editors of the “Pegasus Project”, speaks of “false allegations” and from “unfounded theories”.

The number of people the Emirati secret services have taken an interest in in recent years is in itself very high. From the NSO customers appearing in the data provided World, Only Mexico fares better with 15,000 potential targets. This activism bears the hallmarks of “MBZ,” a trained soldier, his very resilient view of national security and his penchant for clandestine operations.

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