Canada’s national police force is investigating reports that Saudi agents may have hacked into the cellphone of a 27-year-old dissident living in Montreal.
The alleged target was a Montrealer named Omar Abdulaziz who came to Canada as a refugee claimant years ago. He now has a strong social-media following for the criticisms about his homeland he routinely airs online.
News of this RCMP probe comes as the Gulf kingdom faces growing international accusations that it has been trying to spy on, or even silence, its most vocally critical citizens around the world.
In recent days, U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi’s dramatic disappearance at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has prompted international condemnation. Turkish authorities have alleged a well-planned assassination took place inside, but the monarchy has denied knowledge of this.
But Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance may be part of a bigger campaign. The Citizen Lab, a group of academics and digital detectives based in Canada, has released several reports in recent months alleging that a global cellphone-spying network has been stepping up its targeting of people whom the Saudi kingdom would see as threats.
On Oct. 1, the Citizen Lab alleged in a detailed analysis that this surveillance specifically targeted the iPhone of Mr. Abdulaziz this past summer.
Police in Canada appear to be taking accounts of the suspected surveillance seriously. “The RCMP is aware of the Citizen Lab report and the allegations of a possible privacy breach. This matter is currently under investigation,” Staff Sergeant Tania Vaughan said in a statement.
She would not say which laws may have been broken. The Citizen Lab suggested in its report that criminal laws against warrantless wiretapping may have been breached.
The potentially compromised iPhone in Montreal was first identified only after the Citizen Lab did a forensic analysis of internet traffic related to an Israeli company that sells surveillance software to government security agencies.
Because this activity appeared to relate to a spying group focusing on Saudi dissidents that was targeting an iPhone in Montreal, a Citizen Lab researcher then travelled to that city to canvass the Saudi community there. He was directed to meet Mr. Abdulaziz.
When that happened, Mr. Abdulaziz handed over his phone to the Citizen Lab researcher for examination. According to the Citizen Lab, Mr. Abdulaziz was sent a link to an internet site that could have secretly taken over the phone with the commercial surveillance software between June and August of this year.
The Citizen Lab says it can’t conclusively prove that any phone hacking took place, or that the Saudi state was behind it. But in an interview, Mr. Abdulaziz said he doesn’t doubt such surveillance took place. He said he frequently talked to his fellow Saudi dissidents on his iPhone this summer including, very often, Mr. Khashoggi, a man whom he considered a kindred soul.
Since the Citizen Lab published its report early this month, Mr. Abdulaziz has relayed his concerns to federal detectives at the RCMP. “They are asking me some questions and say they are taking care of it,” he said in an interview.