Undercover agents have been questioning U of T Citizen Lab researchers in recent months about their study of an Israeli spyware that was used on murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s friends, reported The Associated Press.
Agents have approached researchers twice in the past two months claiming to be “socially conscious investors” interested in partnerships. During meetings set up after online contact, the agents questioned the researchers about their personal lives and work regarding the NSO Group, a surveillance technology firm based in Israel that has sold a clandestine software called “Pegasus” to governments seeking to spy on iPhones.
The Associated Press reported that Bahr Abdul Razzak, a Citizen Lab researcher, was approached in December by an investigator who called himself Gary Bowman.
Bowman’s questions to Razzak included, “Do you pray?”, “Why do you write only about NSO?”, and “Do you hate Israel?”. Another Citizen Lab researcher, John Scott-Railton, was later approached on January 9 and was asked similar questions.
The Associated Press was not able to reach either of the agents, nor is there any evidence that they are linked to the NSO, which has stated that it is not involved.
Citizen Lab’s research into the NSO Group is part of its larger initiative on tracking “nation state spyware,” said senior research fellow Bill Marczak on CNN in October.
The lab concluded with “high confidence” that Omar Abdulaziz, a close friend of Khashoggi and fellow Saudi dissident, had been under surveillance using the Pegasus software. Abdulaziz lives in Quebec.
“When a government buys Pegasus,” said Marczak, “What they do is they can send a text message to someone’s phone containing a link, and if they convince the person to click on that link in the text message, then the phone becomes infected and the government can see anything on the phone — including pictures, contacts, listening into calls, watching text messages, and even turning on the camera and microphone.”
Citizen Lab is a Munk School of Global Affairs laboratory that studies human rights issues using computer science and social sciences techniques.