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Saudi Arabia came close to buying Hacking Team

Philip Willan | Sept. 28, 2015
US ambassador was involved in deal to buy hacked spyware vendor.

The Saudi Arabian government came close to buying control of Italian surveillance software company Hacking Team, notorious for selling its product to undemocratic regimes, according to hacked emails posted by WikiLeaks.

The negotiations were handled by Wafic Said, a Syrian-born businessman based in the U.K. who is a close friend of the Saudi royal family, and also involved Ronald Spogli, a former U.S. ambassador to Italy, who had an indirect investment in Hacking Team.

The deal collapsed in early 2014 after the removal of Prince Bandar bin Sultan as head of the Saudi intelligence service. The former Saudi ambassador to Washington had backed the purchase but it was not supported by his successor.

Saudi Arabia has long had a reputation as a human rights violator and this week it emerged that a Saudi court had confirmed a death sentence on a young man convicted of participating in antigovernment protests inspired by the Arab Spring. Ali al-Nimr has been sentenced to be beheaded and then crucified for crimes he allegedly committed at the age of 17.

Eric Rabe, a spokesman for Hacking Team, said the talks had never been close to completion. Countries such as Saudi Arabia were allies of the West and it was important that they should receive instruments that enabled them to combat crime and terrorism, he said in a telephone interview.

"If our technology is sold to a repressive regime it does not automatically mean it will be used to terrorize dissidents and repress democracy," Rabe said.

In late 2013 the negotiations to sell control of Hacking Team to Said's investment company Safinvest appeared to be progressing. On December 4 the billionaire philanthropist, who donated the prestigious Said Business School to Oxford University, wrote to Hacking Team CEO David Vincenzetti to assure him he was 100 percent committed to the project.

"You must have faith and trust me. We are serious and do not want to waste time or money," Said wrote in one of more than a million company emails posted online following a disastrous security breach at Hacking Team in early July.

On Feb. 10, 2014, a senior manager at Safinvest, Charles Stauffer, wrote to Vincenzetti to spell out some of the details of the transaction. Ironically, the Saudi-owned company was to be called Halo -- the circular symbol used to denote a saint in Christian art -- and the price was set at 37 million euros (US$42 million).

"Joint Venture company would be formed in the country and this will contract with The Client to execute the new project," Stauffer wrote. The email discussed the training of local staff and office space requirements.

Another email, sent by Vincenzetti to a business adviser on January 14, indicated that Hacking Team did not intend to allow its activities to be cramped by international agreements restricting the export of dual-use technologies to repressive or belligerent regimes.

 

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