Saudi Arabia Using Telecom Exploit to Spy on Dissidents

  • The Saudis are using this feature to pinpoint a users’ location and eavesdrop on calls and text messages.
  • It has harvested millions of contacts for surveillance purposes.
  • The regime has in the past been accused of hacking Jeff Bezos' phone.

Saudi Arabia is relying on a global telecoms service exploit to spy on its citizens. Dubbed SS7, the data mediation feature allows users to send messages across different networks and countries. It, for example, allows T-Mobile users to communicate with subscribers on the Verizon network.

Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (colloquially known as MBS) is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and Deputy Prime Minister. He has been described as the power behind the throne of his father, King Salman.

SS7 is also used legitimately to determine whether a user is subject to roaming charges. The Saudis are using this feature to pinpoint a users’ location. The technology is accurate to within a hundred feet. They are also able to eavesdrop on SMS messages and calls.

This is according to a whistleblower who has provided The Guardian with a trove of numbers harvested by the Saudis. They consist of millions of US contacts. Intelligence experts believe that the regime is unleashing a robust surveillance operation targeting US phones that have been registered in Saudi Arabia. Most of the numbers were obtained over a four-month period from last year in November.

The Murder of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi Tied to a Hack

Concerns have been raised about such loopholes being exploited by foreign governments. The murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 was a wakeup call to the extent to which the Saudi government, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, is willing to go to harm those who move against the status quo.

One of Khashoggi’s associates revealed that his phone might have been hacked by Saudi intelligence and messages against the establishment between him and Khashoggi laid bare. The Pegasus spyware, developed by Israel’s NSO Group, was at the heart of the investigations.

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, journalist for The Washington Post and former general manager and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel, occurred on 2 October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and was perpetrated by agents of the Saudi Arabian government.

According to fellow activist, Omar Abdulaziz, “the hacking of my phone played a major role in what happened to Jamal, I am really sorry to say, the guilt is killing me.” In October last year, Facebook sued the Israeli spy software firm for carrying out vector intrusion attacks on over 1,400 mobile devices via WhatsApp.

There were over 400 uncensored messages exchanged between Abdulaziz and Khashoggi before his death. Some of them described MBS as a despot leader who was ready to take out anyone who crossed his path, including his close associates. The two activists had hatched a plan to discredit the leader and take on his social media trolls. Days before his murder, Khashoggi sent $5,000 to the journalist to organize the campaign.

The most recent hacker allegations against the Saudi regime involve a hack on Jeff Bezos’ phone. The intrusion occurred after he received a message from MBS. The encrypted video file apparently contained malware that could retrieve data from his phone. A forensic analysis of his phone revealed some type of malicious code. The report also revealed that large chunks of data had been sent from the device just hours after receiving the file.

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Samuel Gush

Samuel Gush is a Technology, Entertainment, and Political News writer at Communal News.

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