Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab — which has published reports complaining that governments use security software to spy on political opponents — have been twice targeted by some suspicious people asking intrusive and sometimes personal questions, according to the Associated Press and Citizen Lab.
The AP said that twice in the past two months men saying they were socially-conscious investors have lured members of the Citizen Lab to meetings at luxury hotels in Toronto and New York asking about their work exposing an Israeli surveillance software company and the details of their personal lives.
In both cases, the researchers believe they were secretly recorded, the AP said.
In a blog describing the incidents Citizen Lab called the meetings “a new low.”
“We condemn these sinister, underhanded activities in the strongest possible terms,” Lab director Ron Deibert said in a statement Friday. “Such a deceitful attack on an academic group like the Citizen Lab is an attack on academic freedom everywhere.”
Some of its reports have been about an Israeli-founded surveillance software vendor called the NSO Group, a firm whose applications have been used by governments to target journalists in Mexico , opposition figures in Panama and human rights activists in the Middle East. NSO Group is now owed by U.S. based equity company Franciso Partners.
In October, the AP said, Citizen Lab reported that an iPhone belonging to one of Washington Post contributor and Saudia Arabia watcher Jamal Khashoggi’s confidantes had been infected by the NSO’s spy software only months before Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi embassy in Turkey. The friend, Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, would later claim that the hacking had exposed Khashoggi’s private criticisms of the Saudi royal family to the Arab kingdom’s spies and thus “played a major role” in his death.
According to the AP, Abdulaziz alleged in a civil suit that Saudi Arabia used the NSO software to monitor their communications.
The claims have not been proven in court.
The NSO has said it takes “an extremely scrupulous approach to the licensing of our products — which are only provided after a full vetting and licensing by the Israeli government,”
According to the AP, Bahr Abdul Razzak, a Syrian refugee who works as a Citizen Lab researcher was contacted Dec. 6 by a man calling himself Gary Bowman through LinkedIn. Describing himself as a South African financial technology executive based in Madrid, Bowman wrote that “the work you’ve done helping Syrian refugees and your extensive technical background could be a great fit for our new initiative.”
Abdul Razzak met the man at Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel on the morning of Dec. 18. But Instead of talking about refugees, Abdul Razzak said Bowman asked about his work for Citizen Lab and its investigations into the use of NSO’s software. “Do you pray?” Abdul Razzak recalled Bowman asking at one point. “Why do you write only about NSO?” ”Do you write about it because it’s an Israeli company?” ”Do you hate Israel?”
According to the AP, which was contacted by Citizen Lab about the encounter, Bowman’s supposed Madrid-based company, FlameTech, had no web presence beyond a LinkedIn page, a handful of social media profiles and an entry in the business information platform Crunchbase.
The second incident began when a man calling himself Michel Lambert and claiming to be a director at the Paris-based agricultural technology firm CPW-Consulting, contacted John Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab, saying he wanted to talk about Scott Railton’s early research into kite aerial photography.
Lambert suggested a meeting in New York. Scott-Railton agreed — with the AP secretly watching the meeting.
he conversation began with a discussion of kites, gossip about African politicians, and a detour through Scott-Railton’s family background. But Lambert, just like Bowman, eventually steered the talk to Citizen Lab and NSO.
He asked Scott-Railton questions about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and whether he grew up with any Jewish friends, according to the AP account. At another point he asked whether there might not be a “racist element” to Citizen Lab’s interest in Israeli spyware.
After dessert arrived, the AP reporters approached Lambert at his table and asked him why his company didn’t seem to exist.
“Citizen Lab research is public, and the evidence that we use to draw our conclusions is public as well,” the organization said in its blog. “We have always welcomed debate and dialogue about our work, but we condemn these sinister, underhanded activities in the strongest possible terms. Such a deceitful attack on an academic group like the Citizen Lab is an attack on academic freedom everywhere.”
Citizen Lab is based at the UoT’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and focuses on information and communication technologies, human rights and global security.