Cherie Blair advising security firm accused of helping Saudis spy on Jamal Khashoggi

Cherie Blair has been recruited by a security firm accused in a lawsuit of helping the Saudis to spy on the murdered dissident Jamal Khashoggi, The Telegraph can reveal.

Mrs Blair, a human rights lawyer, is being paid as an “external adviser” to NSO Group, a technology company which developed spyware enabling the remote surveillance of smartphones.

NSO, which is based in Israel, hired Mrs Blair in the wake of a series of controversies over the deployment of its software by foreign powers and claims it is being used to aid and abet human rights abuses.

Mrs Blair set up her own law firm, Omnia Strategy, following her husband Tony Blair’s decision to resign as Prime Minister in 2007, attracting international clients across the globe.

Details of Mrs Blair’s work for NSO Group were contained in a Transparency and Responsibility Report, published last week, seemingly as a consequence of pressure felt by the firm over the use of its cyber software, branded cyber “weaponry” by its critics.

The report identifies “Cherie Blair leading a team at Omnia Strategy” as “experienced human rights practitioners”. The company says its own compliance and legal teams will work with Mrs Blair and other lawyers “to incorporate human rights considerations into NSO activities, including interactions with customers and deployment of NSO products”.

Mrs Blair’s chief task appears to be monitoring the use of NSO’s cyber security software to ensure it is not being misused. It is unclear how much Omnia Strategy is being paid for its work. 

The Telegraph previously reported in 2014 that Mrs Blair has charged in the region of £1,000 an hour when working as a legal adviser to the Ministry of Justice in Kazakhstan. At the time, Kazakhstan was ruled by its autocratic president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was advised in turn by Tony Blair.

Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, an organisation that has been fiercely critical of NSO, said: “Regarding Cherie Blair, or whomever else may contemplate engaging NSO to assist them in this theatre, the professional reputational risks around association with such a company and its connections to widespread human rights abuses are enormous.”

He said Mrs Blair’s background as “a prominent name cast in a high-minded and principled sounding role” would only “help gloss over and distract from” NSO’s operations.

NSO’s chief product is its Pegasus software which allows customers who buy it to intercept messages using a target’s phone number, but leaving them unaware they are being spied on.

Lawsuit against NSO Group

A lawsuit lodged in Israel by Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident based in Montreal, alleges that NSO’s software was used by Saudi Arabia to spy on his phone. The lawsuit alleges that the Saudis could access Khashoggi’s communications which were sent to Mr Abdulaziz.

Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was killed and then dismembered using a bone saw in October 2018.

The company has denied any involvement in the death, with its founder and chief executive Shalev Hulio telling US television: “We had nothing to do with this horrible murder.” The company has repeatedly insisted that Khashoggi was never targeted with its cyber products.

In January 2020, NSO attempted to have the case dismissed, but a court in Tel Aviv ruled it could go ahead. Khashoggi is understood to have exchanged hundreds of messages with Mr Abdulaziz in the months before he was killed.

NSO is also being sued in California by WhatsApp, the messaging service owned by Facebook, which alleged that 1,400 of its users were hacked by the tech firm in a two-week period in 2019. It was thought to be the first time that WhatsApp’s security had been infiltrated.

NSO denies Khashoggi involvement

NSO has said it sells spyware to government clients and law enforcement agencies to track terrorists and criminals. A spokesman said last year in response to the WhatsApp lawsuit: “Our technology is used to save lives and prevent terror and crime worldwide, and we remain confident that our conduct is lawful.”

A company spokesperson on Saturday told The Telegraph: “Many of the issues raised in the inquiry are detailed in our Transparency and Responsibility Report, including on the nature of interactions with our external human rights advisors.

“As we said repeatedly, we categorically deny that our technology was used in the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi and our technology was never used on Jamal Khashoggi including listening, monitoring, tracking, collecting info with any product or technology of NSO Group, hence, there is no, and never was, any legal action related in any way to this issue. As for any other pending legal actions, we cannot comment on ongoing legal procedures.

“NSO Group, for national security reasons, cannot share information regarding which countries are using or not using our products.”

Some of its products, including the Pegasus software, can only be sold with the approval of Israel’s defence ministry. NSO previously won a court battle with Amnesty International which had attempted to prevent the firm selling its cyber software overseas.

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