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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 newco should be away from countries adhering to the new, forthcoming export regulations on ‘offensive technologies’ which will [be] dictated by the recent Wassenaar Arrangement," Vincenzetti wrote. "We would like the newco to be in a country which will not impair the export of our technology."

Vincenzetti helpfully included a link to a list of countries participating in the Wassenaar Arrangement, which aims to encourage responsibility in the transfer of conventional arms and dual-use technologies, so that those countries could be avoided.

On April 14 Vincenzetti sent colleagues a newspaper article on Prince Bandar’s ouster as head of Saudi intelligence, saying it provided "further clarification as to why things didn’t move forward with W. [Wafic]."

"Hacking Team had a long legal battle to get permission to export its products to problematic countries. It's paradoxical that it couldn’t sell its software to Saudi Arabia but it could sell them the entire company," said Marco Lillo, the Italian journalist who first reported on the existence of the Saudi-related emails for the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano last month.

Despite Vincenzetti's close links to the Italian secret services -- he sold his company's Remote Control System to the foreign intelligence service AISE -- and the fact that a company owned by the Lombardy regional government had a 26 percent stake in Hacking Team, there is no evidence that the national government took any steps to prevent the sale. A spokesman for the Prime Minister's office said by SMS that he had no information on the subject.

It is probable that the U.S. government would have been made aware of the pending sale by Spogli. A venture capitalist and member of the board of trustees of Stanford University, the former ambassador owned a 10 percent stake in an investment company, Innogest, which controlled 26 percent of Hacking Team.

Spogli had only a minimal involvement in the Saudi negotiations, an Innogest official said by phone. He declined to comment further. Neither Said nor Spogli responded to requests for comment.

As well as being used to track Sunni fundamentalist terrorists, Hacking Team's technology was very likely deployed against Saudi Arabaia's internal Shia opposition to the regime, said Liisa Liimatainen, a Finnish journalist and author of a book on the battle for female emancipation in the Gulf kingdom.

"There are a lot of bloggers and very lively debates on Twitter, but it's a medieval state," Liimatainen said in a telephone interview. "They monitor Internet and use terrorism laws against civil society. Facebook activity and corresponding with a foreigner can be considered crimes in themselves," she said.

Hacking Team’s Rabe said he had no information on who was responsible for the disastrous hack that spilled 400GB of the company's internal data onto the Web. "It was a sophisticated attack and we don't believe its success was down to poor passwords," he said. Rabe said he didn't think the hack was the work of corporate rivals, as competitors were unlikely to post the results online.


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