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Saudi Arabia deploys new Israeli spyware to hack activists' phones: Report

Reign is the second Israeli program after Pegasus reportedly being used by Riyadh to hack the phones of human rights activists and journalists
Saudi men chat in front of a poster of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a forum in Riyadh on 15 November 2017 (AFP)

An Israeli cyber company has provided Saudi Arabia with an offensive hacking technology that compromises targeted smartphones and turns them into spying devices, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Tuesday.

Quadream, a Tel Aviv-based company, has reportedly sold to Saudi authorities a program called Reign, which has the ability to hack phones, extract their data and turn them into tracking devices.

Reign does not require the targeted phone owner to click on a malicious link in order to be able to hack the device, and reportedly has the ability to eavesdrop through the microphone, extract stored messages, photos, videos and emails, and run the phone's navigation system, effectively turning it into a tracking device.

According to Haaretz, Reign is being sold by InReach Technologies, Quadream's sister company based in Cyprus, while Quadream runs its research and development operations from an office in the Ramat Gan district in Tel Aviv.

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Quadream was founded in 2016 by three Israelis with backgrounds in the cybersecurity industry, including one who served in Israel’s military intelligence agency, Aman. The company does not have an online presence, nor does it display a logo on its office door.

InReach Technologies, its sales front in Cyprus, according to Haaretz, may be being used in order to fly under the radar of Israel’s defence export regulator.

Reign's capacity to break into phones using zero-click technology is similar to Pegasus spyware, developed by Israel’s largest surveillance company NSO Group and also sold to Saudi Arabia.

Several Israeli companies - many of whose founders and employees hail from the intelligence and defence industries - have developed technologies to hack and spy on mobile phones. Israeli spyware technology has reportedly been sold to several repressive Arab governments, including the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, which have used it to spy on journalists and activists.

Jamal Khashoggi killing

Saudi Arabia purchased Reign in 2019 and Pegasus in the summer of 2017. It had also previously used the Israeli-developed Cellebrite technology, a device that extracts data from a physically connected phone.

According to security experts quoted by Haaretz, Reign is cheaper than Pegasus and has less advanced technology, as one phone update could stop its hacking ability. Also, it can’t be remotely shut down in case the spying mission is compromised.

Riyadh had reportedly used Pegasus to track and spy on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi prior to his killing in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October 2018. US intelligence agencies said in February that the Saudi de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was responsible for Khashoggi's death.

Saudi authorities also used Pegasus to bug phones during a so-called anti-corruption campaign ordered by bin Salman, during which members of the Saudi royal family, government ministers and business tycoons were rounded up and detained in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh in November 2017

In December, 36 journalists, producers, anchors and executives at Qatari news channel Al Jazeera said that their phones had been hacked with Pegasus by the governments of Saudi Arabia and UAE.