NYT reporter who wrote book on Saudi Crown Prince MbS 'targeted' by Saudi hackers

NYT reporter who wrote book on Saudi Crown Prince MbS 'targeted' by Saudi hackers
American reporter and author Ben Hubbard is believed to have been targeted by hackers working for Saudi Arabia.
4 min read
29 January, 2020
Author Ben Hubbard wrote a book on crown prince Mohamed bin Salman [Getty]
An American reporter, who has written a book about Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman, was allegedly targeted by hackers working for Saudi Arabia, a new report by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School found.

Ben Hubbard believes his phone was targeted by Saudi hackers, using software sold by Israeli company NSO Group known as Pegasus.

The attempted hack occurred roughly six weeks after the hacking of Amazon chief and owner of the Washington Post Jeff Bezos's phone, which was allegedly infected by spyware hidden in a message from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS).

"The attempt on my phone, a month after the reported hack of Mr Bezos, was less dramatic but no less scary in its implications," Hubbard wrote in an article for The New York Times.

"An examination of my phone turned up no indications that it has been compromised, but technology researchers who inspected the message I received concluded that I was targeted with powerful software sold by NSO Group, an Israeli company, and deployed by hackers working for Saudi Arabia."

The UN has launched an investigation into the hacking of Bezos' phone. Both NSO and Saudi officials have denied the allegations. 

In Hubbard's account of the experience, he describes how in June 2018 he received what he described as a "fishy" text message in Arabic on his phone.

The message read "Ben Hubbard and the story of the Saudi royal family", with a link to a website, arabnews365.com, which the author refrained from clicking on.

An investigation by Citizen Lab found the message to have been a targeted hacking attempt. 

"We know for certain that the domain that was in the text was part of that command and control infrastructure that is connected to NSO Group," Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, told the New York Times.

Determining who had used the software was more difficult, but researchers studied web addresses to link it back to Saudi Arabia. 

The researchers at Citizen Lab have identified four others "hacked by operators that appeared to be working for Saudi Arabia" - Canada-based dissident Omar Abdulaziz, London-based satirist Ghanem Al-Masirir, dissident Yahra Assiri and a staff member at Amnesty International.

"If the proposition is that one operator tried to hack all these people, what do they have in common?" Bill Marczak, a Citizen Lab senior told the New York Times.

"The Saudi angle is it. There is really nothing else."

All the hacking attemps occured in May and June of 2018. 

"This is yet another example of a journalist being targeted for doing their job. Efforts to intimidate journalists and potential sources should be of concern to everyone. We will stay focused on our mission to seek the truth and help people understand the world," said a spokesperson for The New York Times on the Hubbard case.

Hubbard had written extensively on Saudi Arabia for five years when he received the text message in 2018. In the time leading up to the text message he had been focusing on Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Founded in 2010 by Israelis Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, NSO Group is based in the Israeli seaside hi-tech hub of Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. It says it employs 600 people in Israel and around the world.

It produces Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target's mobile phone camera and microphone and access data on it, effectively turning the phone into a pocket spy. 

Read more: Saudi Arabia hacked Jeff Bezos' phone and the Trump administration couldn't care less

In an interview in early 2019 with Israeli daily Maariv, Hulio was asked about reports that telephone spyware was used to bug Jamal Khashoggi prior to the Saudi journalist's October 2018 murder in Istanbul.

"As a human being and as an Israeli, what happened to Khashoggi was a shocking murder," the company's CEO said.

"I can tell you on the record that Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection." 

In light of recent accusation, NSO said Tuesday it was wrong to assume that "every missed call, SMS, or video call is Pegasus", according to the Guardian.

NSO also criticised Citizen Lab, saying "Regardless of CitizenLab's enduring efforts to accuse NSO Group as being responsible for every alleged cyber intelligence misuse, NSO Group is proud of its work in assisting law enforcement agencies around the globe who are on the frontlines fighting serious organised crime and terrorism,and saving lives."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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