A new report reveals how Abu Dhabi established a spy network to snoop on Doha.
A report from the New York Times has revealed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) established an electronic spy network which included former US National Security Agency (NSA) members to spy on Qatar.
According to the newspaper, the main reason behind the UAE’s attempt was to prove Qatar's terrorism financing allegations and its funding of the Muslim Brotherhood group.
As per the report, the UAE offered members of the spy network high salaries, doubling or even quadrupling their previous stipends.
"We were misled by double financial offers under the cover of working for an allied government of Washington," one of the former members of the network told The New York Times.
The Abu Dhabi government has yet to comment on this report.
Not the first time
It is not the first time such reports have emerged. Among several other instances of spying on Qatari interests by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, it was revealed in December 2020 that the Pegasus spyware created by Israeli company, the NSO Group, was reportedly used by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to hack into the phones and devices of several Al Jazeera journalists.
The incident was uncovered after Al Jazeera’s renowned journalist Tamer Almisshal sought out cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto following suspicions that his phone had been hacked. The researchers then monitored his phone and found the spyware.
“They have used some of the content they stole from the phones to blackmail journalists by posting private photos on the internet,” Almisshal said.
In its report, Citizen Lab raised its concerns over the vulnerability of Apple's iPhone and the impact the lack of sufficient security had had on one of the most prominent international media organisations.
Known for having some of the leading digital surveillance researchers, Citizen Lab claimed that the incident took place by the use of a malware which was used by the clients of the Israeli group and rendered "almost all" iPhone devices without Apple's latest iOS 14 system vulnerable.
Unlike in previous incidents involving the NSO Group and phone hacks, ones that were made possible due to click methods, such as sending WhatsApp messages, the attack on Al Jazeera journalists took place via "zero-click" technology. It demonstrated how victims did not need to follow a link or message to allow the spyware to enter, making the advancement "more sophisticated, less detectable."
Thanks to the malicious code delivered through Apple's servers, which automatically connected them to an NSO Group server, Almisshal’s phone had been hacked.
It is known that the Israeli group sold its technology to several governments and intelligence agencies across the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This paved the way for them to monitor journalists and dissidents living abroad.
When faced with harsh criticism over how its technology is used, the NSO Group was quick to deny any responsibility, saying that they do not have access to any information with respect to the identities of individuals on which their system conducts surveillance.
Even before the blockade
Several weeks before the blockade was imposed on Qatar in 2017, Al Jazeera’s website was hacked and false stories attributed to the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani were published.
Commenting on the issue, Qatar’s interior ministry argued that the cyberattacks originated from the UAE and had “state resources” behind it.
Concentrated cyberattacks on Qatar also came via Twitter bots, spreading and amplifying fake news, as well as manipulating hashtags.
According to Citizen Lab, in 2020 alone, at least 36 Al Jazeera journalists had been targeted by advanced spyware sold by the Israeli group in an attack linked to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.