Tech by VICE

United Arab Emirates Says It Doesn't Hack Dissidents or Journalists

But news reports continue to suggest that ex-NSA hackers are helping the country hack and surveil its citizens.

by Ben Makuch
Jun 11 2019, 4:56pm

Image: Towfiqu via Getty Images

A top official in the United Arab Emirates told Motherboard his government doesn’t spy on its own citizens, and that he doesn’t know how much the country spends on cyberweaponry. The comments come despite several reports alleging that the wealthy Gulf state is employing ex-NSA hackers in its surveillance operations.

“I have no idea about spending, but we do have cyber capabilities,” said Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for the U.A.E. “And we understand that these challenges towards any more modern sophisticated society will become greater challenges as we move forward.”

Gargash made the comments at a media-only roundtable after giving an address at GLOBSEC—a high profile annual conference attracting top diplomatic and foreign affairs officials from around the world held in Bratislava, Slovakia.

In January, an explosive Reuters story detailed how the U.A.E. uses former NSA hackers in tandem with its own intelligence services, to spy on journalists and dissidents with the help of an Abu Dhabi-based company called DarkMatter.

Gargash flatly rejected the report.

“I think we were very clear that when this news item first came out, we said that we wouldn’t target citizens,” he said.

But that flies in the face of well-documented investigations showing the UAE as a human rights abusing nation employing western spies and tools to clamp down on dissent.

Gargash was evasive when asked whether the country still works with DarkMatter.

“We have a policy, also, not to talk about the details of cyber,” he said.

The latest denial from Gargash comes on the heels of one of U.A.E.’s key regional allies—Saudi Arabia—allegedly using Israeli-made NSO Group spyware to surveil its dissidents, which is the same technology used to track, hack, and surveil Washington Post journalist, Jamaal Khashoggi before his brutal assassination. NSO Group denies that Khashoggi was targeted using NSO malware.

The two Middle Eastern states—relying heavily on their oil revenue—are key American allies in the region. The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia are currently engaged in the war in Yemen together—a conflict drawing widespread condemnation and war crimes allegation against both countries, who are in conflict with Tehran-backed Houthi rebels.

But Gargash says the U.A.E.'s hacking capabilities are a direct response to being the victims of cyber attacks.

“I think it's very legitimate for us to have cyber capability,” he explained. “We have been targets of cyber attacks, and I think it's very legitimate. But again, these are capabilities that we don't really delve into or talk about details.”