Saudi Arabia Wanted to Own Hacking Team
Leaked emails available at WikiLeaks have revealed a scheme thought up by Saudi Arabia to simply buy Hacking Team outright, rather than continue to pay the outlandish costs for their services. Between 2013 and early 2014, several e-mails were exchanged with the Italian security professionals, who now have a proven history of aiding governments guilty of human rights violations, something they’d previously denied.
Syrian-born investor Wafic Said is a close friend of the Saudi royal family and initiated the potential purchase through his company Safinvest. Several e-mails in the Wikileaks Hacking Team dump refer to a letter of intent, signed by the major principals of Safinvest, which never appeared to materialize. Wafic Said was overly apologetic in one such e-mail, saying:
I have spoken to Ian and to William Heard and can assure you that everyone is doing their utmost to proceed with the due diligence as quickly and diligently as possible. However, it is not their fault if it is difficult to find suitable auditors to carry out the due diligence within such a short time-frame. There are few international auditors and one should accept that they are often very busy. You must have faith and trust me.
In the middle of November, 2013, Hacking Team very much believed they were soon to cash out for 37 million Euros. In this e-mail, they assured Safinvest employee Charles Stauffer that things were going fine. Hacking Team CEO David Vinzencetti wrote:
[…] Despite the fact that the two VCs have not signed the LOI [letter of intent] yet —due to mere internal bureaucracy reasons—, they definitely are in the process of signing such a document and they have formally assured me that they are totally “behind me”. All the other shareholders have duly signed.
The deal appears to have fallen through in early 2014 when a new Saudi intelligence chief was installed. Another search term that yields plentiful results at the Hacking Team dump is “halo,” the name the Saudis intended to give the new company.
One thing that cannot be denied, sifting through the massive trove of leaked e-mails, is that Hacking Team most certainly did service the Saudi state.
Emails in May, 2012 detail the firm going to Riyadh on Saudi funds for reasons not disclosed. Two email addresses were used: [email protected] and [email protected]. The person writing to Hacking Team explicitly stated that they do not use e-mail for such sensitive communication, but that they could communicate via the Saudi embassy in Italy or in Washington.
that is pleasure to us too. our embassy will contact you for the visa. and i will send for you the tickets. the embassy not authorized to discuss any thing with you. they just know that you will be a vip guests for the Royal Court.
The Saudi government is well-known for putting people to death for speaking out against it, and Hacking Team’s tools could very well have been used to such an end. As late as 2015, it appears Hacking Team had ongoing interactions with the Saudi Royal Family, with H.E. Saud Al-Qahtani, an officer of the Royal Court, contacting them in late June in his capacity for “media monitoring” and more.
[…] we here at the Center for Media Monitoring and Analysis at the Saudi Royal Court ( THE King Office) would like to be in productive cooperation with you and develop a long and strategic partnership.
I would like you to be so kind as to send us the complete list of services that your esteemed company offers, in addition to their prices, all explained in detail, as soon as possible please.
You may contact me by Telegram or Threema on my private mobile […]
Then, in July, as you know, Hacking Team was compromised in a big way. There’s no telling whether they’re still doing business with repressive governments or not. Speaking to CSO Online, Hacking Team spokesman Eric Rabe said, “If our technology is sold to a repressive regime it does not automatically mean it will be used to terrorize dissidents and repress democracy.”
Featured image from Shutterstock.