Technology & Science

Quebec dissident believes Saudis used spyware to eavesdrop on his chats with Jamal Khashoggi

Fellow critic Omar Abdulaziz fears his relationship with Khashoggi may have put the Saudi journalist in further danger, given the spyware that was planted on Abdulaziz's phone.

Omar Abdulaziz says his phone was infected with spyware while in regular contact with the Saudi journalist

Omar Abdulaziz has been critical of the Saudi Arabian government's human rights record and its handling of the Canadian diplomatic feud. (Anand Ramakrishnan/CBC News)

A Saudi activist living in Quebec believes the kingdom spied on conversations he had with missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the months leading up to his disappearance.

Khashoggi, an outspoken contributor to the Washington Post's opinion section, was reportedly murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, according to unnamed Turkish government sources who have spoken to news organizations in recent days.

"His voice was a headache for the Saudi government," said Omar Abdulaziz, a Canadian permanent resident and similarly vocal Saudi critic, in conversation with Wendy Mesley on The Weekly. Abdulaziz says he had been in frequent contact with Khashoggi over the past year — and now fears that relationship may have contributed to the danger Khashoggi faced. 

A report published by the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab earlier this month found evidence that Abdulaziz had been targeted with powerful spyware only sold to governments, and concluded that Saudi authorities were "very likely" responsible.  

The RCMP is investigating, but declined to comment further.

The spyware would have given its operators total control over Abdulaziz's phone, letting them eavesdrop on his calls, copy his address book and photos, take screenshots or videos of text messages, and remotely activate his camera and microphone — all unbeknownst to Abdulaziz. 

"For sure, they listened to the conversation between me and Jamal and other activists, in Canada, in the States, in Turkey, in Saudi Arabia," he said. 

Abdulaziz said that he was working with Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, pictured, on a handful of projects before Khashoggi disappeared. (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

Abdulaziz previously told CBC News that he was worried about what would happen to the people he communicated with while his phone was infected. His two brothers, along with several of his friends, were recently imprisoned by the Saudi Arabian government — an attempt at intimidation, he believes, aided by their intimate access to his phone.

"Nobody's going to harm me because I [express] my opinions," said Abdulaziz, who has been critical of the Saudi Arabian government's human rights record and its handling of the Canadian diplomatic feud. "But here's the thing: so many people who contacted me are in real danger because of that."

Out of reach

Abdulaziz said he had been working with Khashoggi on three projects prior to his disappearance — one of which was an online campaign intended to counter the torrent of pro-regime propaganda that Abdualaziz said the Saudi government has encouraged on social media.

"Khashoggi promised me to sponsor the project and I guess they could listen in to those conversations," Abdulaziz said. "I told the Canadian authorities that it's a serious thing."

Khashoggi also wanted to start a website, based in the U.S., highlighting human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, with a focus on prisoners and activists. 

Like Abdulaziz, Khashoggi believed that the Saudi government wouldn't be able to touch him while he was in North America, Abdulaziz said. He believes that is why Saudi authorities convinced Khashoggi he needed to travel to the consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancée.

Hatice A., the Turkish fiancee of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, walks outside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 3. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

"I do believe that they're not going to send someone to kill me or kidnap me from here, thank god," said Abdulaziz. "And they couldn't do the same thing to Jamal Khashoggi because he was in the States."

The last time he spoke with Khashoggi was on Sept. 28, before Khashoggi left the U.S.

Abdulaziz "has a good right to suspect ... that he could have put Khashoggi in jeopardy," said Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert. "Just like he learned that he put friends and family in jeopardy when they were apprehended and arrested in Saudi Arabia, probably based on conversations and chats and emails they intercepted from his phone."

About the Author

Matthew Braga

Senior Technology Reporter

Matthew Braga is the senior technology reporter for CBC News, where he covers stories about how data is collected, used, and shared. He can be contacted at matthew.braga@cbc.ca. For particularly sensitive messages or documents, consider using Secure Drop, an anonymous, confidential system for sharing encrypted information with CBC News.