NSO Group’s logo on a building in Herzliya, Israel, in 2016 (the company has since moved).
Photo: Daniella Cheslow (AP)

“International undercover operatives” have been hounding members of the internet watchdog Citizen Lab, whose researchers helped reveal that an Israeli cyber-intelligence firm named NSO Group may have played a role in dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the hands of state-employed goons, the Associated Press reported Friday.

According to the AP, at least twice in the past two months, individuals “masquerading as socially conscious investors” have lured members of Citizen Lab to hotels, where they were quizzed for hours about the nature of their jobs, their lives, and Israeli surveillance techniques. In the first incident, a man using the name Gary Bowman and claiming to work for a Spanish company named FlameTech reached out to Syrian refugee and Citizen Lab fellow Bahr Abdul Razzak, meeting him at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto in December 2018. (FlameTech, the AP noted, does not appear to exist in any publicly available records.) Then the man hit him with a series of increasingly invasive questions:

Instead of talking about refugees, Abdul Razzak said, Bowman grilled him about his work for Citizen Lab and its investigations into the use of NSO’s software. Abdul Razzak said Bowman appeared to be reading off cue cards, asking him if he was earning enough money and throwing out pointed questions about Israel, the war in Syria and Abdul Razzak’s religiosity.

“Do you pray?” Abdul Razzak recalled Bowman asking. “Why do you write only about NSO?” ″Do you write about it because it’s an Israeli company?” ″Do you hate Israel?”

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In a second incident a month later, a man saying he was “Michel Lambert, a director at the Paris-based agricultural technology firm CPW-Consulting,” asked Citizen Lab senior researcher John Scott-Railton for a meeting at a New York hotel. (Other than a low-effort blog post mentioning them, CPW-Consulting appeared to be just as fake as the aforementioned FlameTech.) However, Abdul Razzak had already tipped off his colleagues to the suspicious first meeting. Scott-Railton came prepared with AP reporters and hidden recording devices in tow, while “Lambert” brought a pen that appeared to have a “tiny camera lens” concealed within:

Like Bowman, Lambert appeared to be working off cue cards and occasionally made awkward conversational gambits. At one point he repeated a racist French expression, insisting it wasn’t offensive. He also asked Scott-Railton questions about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and whether he grew up with any Jewish friends. At another point he asked whether there might not be a “racist element” to Citizen Lab’s interest in Israeli spyware.

After dessert arrived, the AP reporters approached Lambert at his table and asked him why his company didn’t seem to exist... “I know what I’m doing,” Lambert said, as he put his files—and his pen—into a bag. Then he stood up, bumped into a chair and walked off, saying “Ciao” and waving his hand, before returning because he had neglected to pay the bill.

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That man added that he didn’t “have to give you any explanation,” the AP wrote. Transcripts and emails related to the suspicious meetings are available by the Associated Press.

Citizen Lab’s research into NSO Group’s Pegasus system, a powerful spyware tool that can be installed on phones without users’ knowledge and supposedly can monitor almost everything that happens on a device, follows a late-November Haaretz report that NSO Group had met with Saudi officials to discuss selling the technology to them. Citizen Lab researchers alleged they had found evidence that a Pegasus operator which “appeared to be operating in the interests of Saudi Arabia” had targeted dissident Omar Abdulaziz, a refugee in Canada in frequent communication with Khashoggi. Both criticized Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose tenure has been marked by brutal crackdowns on real and perceived enemies to his power, in texts traded on the encrypted WhatsApp messaging service. Khashoggi was later murdered in October 2018 after he was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and cornered inside.

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NSO Group has publicly denied that its technology was involved in Khashoggi’s death, though it refused to confirm or deny that it had sold Pegasus to the Saudi government. According to the AP, the men involved in the hotel meetings have not responded to any further attempts to contact them, and NSO Group is “adamant that it wasn’t involved.”

However, both Scott-Railton and Abdul Razzak told the AP they believed someone was attempting to get them to say something damaging that could hurt Citizen Lab’s reputation.

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“It could be they wanted me to say, ‘Yes, I hate Israel,’ or ‘Yes, Citizen Lab is against NSO because it’s Israeli,” Abdul Razzak told the AP. Scott-Railton added that the operation to target the men was elaborate and international, indicating that to him, “That means that your work is important.”

“This failed operation against two Citizen Lab researchers is a new low,” Citzen Lab wrote in a statement. “Citizen Lab research is public, and the evidence that we use to draw our conclusions is public as well. We have always welcomed debate and dialogue about our work, but we condemn these sinister, underhanded activities in the strongest possible terms.”

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“Such a deceitful attack on an academic group like the Citizen Lab is an attack on academic freedom everywhere.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Citizen Lab’s John Scott-Railton met with a man going by the name “Michel Lambert” at a Toronto hotel; the hotel was actually in New York. Further, documents related to the meeting were uploaded to DocumentCloud by the Associated Press, not by Citizen Lab on the organization’s website; and previous reporting that the NSO Group met with Saudi officials was conducted by Haaretz, not Citizen Lab. We regret the errors.

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[Associated Press/Citizen Lab via Ars Technica]