Group 42, linked to Emirati intelligence, announced a deal with two Israeli aerospace and defence companies, but there’s might be more than meets the eye.
Two major Israeli defence groups signed a landmark deal on July 2 2020 with Group 42, an Emirati technology firm that describes itself as a specialist in artificial intelligence but has been linked to Emirati intelligence and Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahyan, the UAE’s national security advisor and brother of the late Sheikh Zayed.
The other signatories include Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israeli Aerospace Industries, who are coming together to research and develop technology and solutions to handle Covid-19.
The exact nature of the deal has come under question given the history and specialisation of the parties involved.
Group 42 (G42) was most recently implicated as the developer of ToTok, a free calling and messaging app that was exposed as “used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it.”
More importantly, Group 42 is directly linked to Dark Matter, a shadowy UAE tech company that hired former NSA operatives to spy on hundreds of targets around the world. Dark Matter itself was implicated in sourcing Pegasus, the Israeli spyware software developed by Israeli firm NSO Group.
Through Dark Matter, the UAE played a role in building Saudi Arabia’s fledgeling cyber capacity. Saud al Qahtani, a close advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), who was fired for his involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, would be introduced to the Israeli NSO Group by the UAE, which brokered a deal between representatives of MBS and the Israeli group.
As Israel deems the NSO Group’s spyware a weapon, lawsuits against the NSO Group note that it could only have been sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by explicit approval of the Israeli Defence Ministry.
In the deal, Saudi Arabia acquired the hacking software Pegasus, which it reportedly used to hack journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s phone prior to his murder, as well as a broad array of dissidents, enemies and political opponents.
Meanwhile, Rafael and Israeli Aerospace Industries are major arms manufacturers supplying the Israeli military with drones, munitions and communications equipment. Saudi Arabia is a recent client of Rafael.
How deep does it go?
While G42’s memorandum of understanding signed with the two defense groups cites its dedication to challenges posed by Covid-19, it fails to specify a focus to the agreement.
G42 is currently responsible for running Covid-19 vaccine trials under supervision of the UAE’s health ministry, but it doesn’t answer what Israeli aerospace and defence companies have to offer in the health industry.
On Xiao Peng’s Linkedin, G42’s current CEO, still describes himself as the CEO of Pegasus LLC, a Dark Matter holding, in spite of denials of links between the two.
More critically, it was under Xiao’s leadership on April 25 2017, DarkMatter signed a “Global Strategic Memorandum of Understanding” with Huawei for “Big Data” systems and “Smart City” solutions.
Huawei has come under heavy fire recently for alleged corporate espionage and its risk to ‘infrastructure security’.
Huawei is highly praised by the Chinese government for its role in the state’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI). One of the signature projects of the BRI is the national emergency system it developed in Ecuador.
Huawei invested heavily in the system, with surveillance equipment, facial recognition technology, and wireless access controllers.
Two years later, ToTok’s developer G42 and its parent company Pegasus LLC would be exposed for its design of a mass surveillance tool that it denies to the present day.
Whether G42 and Israel’s foremost aerospace, defence and communications groups work together on addressing the challenges posed by Covid-19 remains to be seen.
However, Group 42’s proximity to Emirati intelligence, and its past precedent in carrying out large scale surveillance made possible through partnerships with China and Israel is established.
Concerns that technology transfers may not only enable them to trace and source Covid-19 patients for instance, but also be used to expand the UAE’s surveillance and intelligence capacities are not altogether unreasonable.