Pegasus Spying Project || “Shoot me here!”

13 min readJul 22, 2021

Pegasus is currently considered by experts to be the most powerful surveillance program for cell phones and is classified as a cyber weapon. NSO has continuously developed its flagship product. Initially, an SMS was sent with a link that the victim had to click. Only then could Pegasus install itself on the device. In the meantime, the owner of a cell phone no longer even notices when the device is attacked by the espionage program.

NSO goes to great lengths to find unknown security gapsin all programs that run on a mobile phone. 860 programmers work for the company. A large part of them are busy finding such gaps in apps and mobile operating systems.

One person with insider knowledge said the average number of targets per customer per year was 112. With 45 customers that would be just over 5,000 targets attacked with Pegasus.

For months, reporters from numerous countries have been researching where, how and against whom the espionage software Pegasus from the Israeli company NSO is used by secret services and police authorities around the world. The starting point was a list of more than 50,000 cell phone numbers from around 50 countries that was leaked to the non-profit organization Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International.

The three letters NSO actually stand for the first names of the three founders Niv, Shalrev and Omri, but in recent years they have become synonymous with surveillance. Because the Israeli company sells a system called Pegasus, with which any mobile phone worldwide can be attacked, taken over and spied on. NSO is only allowed to give Pegasus to state police authorities and secret services, the Israeli government must approve each.

NSO was founded in 2010, and in 2011 the company found Mexico as the first customer for its surveillance tool. Today, NSO claims to have 45 police, military and secret services in 36 countries as customers. These include, for example, Morocco, Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates, but also the EU country Hungary and democracy India.

Princess Latifa and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktum, ruler of Dubai

The two women who enter Café La Serre in the glittering center of Dubai this morning in February 2018 look like two typical customers on their way to a hearty French breakfast. But they are not. You are on the run. A short visit to the boulangerie is just the wrong track. Because while the Finn Tiina Jauhiainen orders coffee to go , her friend Latifa Al Maktum rushes to the toilet, takes off her overcoat, changes her sunglasses and changes her hairstyle. When she leaves the washroom, she leaves her smartphone behind. Latifa Al Maktum was 32 years old at the time. She is a princess, daughter of the Emir of Dubai. The makeshift transformation in the toilet of a café is the beginning of a journey that is forbidden for her.

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Because Princess Latifa wants to escape her father , Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktum, ruler of the Emirate of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates , which include Dubai. She is one of at least 25 children he has with two official wives and several concubines, the middle three daughters named Latifa. What drives her, she has previously recorded in a video message: She is fleeing from “absolute evil”, her father terrorized her and her older sister Shamsa, had them locked up and tortured. He is ready to kill people to protect his own reputation. This video, says the princess, could be her last. She just wants to lead a self-determined life.

It sounds like the beginning of an old fairy tale: The filthy rich but unhappy daughter rebels against the domineering father. However, this family feud will be fought with the most modern digital methods. State authorities are involved. Third countries asked for help. As part of the Pegasus project suggests that a cyber weapon is being used: a spy program that turns cell phones into surveillance devices.

The hunt for Latifa Al Maktum is another indication that Pegasus is regularly misused and abused by customers. In this case, presumably for a family matter. The research was triggered by a list of potential targets with more than 50,000 telephone numbers that was leaked to the Forbidden Stories association and Amnesty International and evaluated by the journalists’ consortium. The cell phone numbers of Latifa’s mother, her sister-in-law and close friends appear in the leaked data. Officials in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates did not respond to inquiries, but have indicated in the past that it was a family matter.

Read also: Jamal Khashoggi murdered through Pegasus spy program

Tiina Jauhiainen and Princess Latifa suspect that smartphones could put them in danger on the go. That is why the mobile phone is left behind in the ladies’ room at La Serre. The Finnish woman also swaps her SIM card, and a Saudi friend provides her with another smartphone that has a Finnish cell phone number. At first everything looks good for both of them. The women get into an SUV in front of La Serre. A selfie shows the two on board the getaway car, a black Audi Q7: fitness trainer Tiina Jauhiainen at the wheel, Princess Latifa in the passenger seat. They smile at the camera through mirrored sunglasses. Your destination is the coast of neighboring Oman, from there they want to reach Sri Lanka by sea and then take a flight to the USA. That is the plan.

Shortly before the border, the princess hides in the trunk. At the age of sixteen, Latifa Al Maktum had attempted to escape once before. At that time, she was stopped on the border with Oman, she complained in the video she recorded before the new escape, and her father then locked her away for three years and four months. Don’t let that happen to her again. This time the escape is prepared more thoroughly. Tiina Jauhiainen, who she met during Capoeira training, is just one of the many helpers.

At noon the friends reach the Omani coast. The next escape helper is waiting in Muscat. He takes her to the open sea in a rubber dinghy, where a Frenchman named Hervé Jaubert receives the princess and her companion with jet skis 14 miles off the coast. Latifa Al Maktum hired him because the businessman and former employee of the French foreign intelligence service had managed to escape from the emirate a few years earlier; Jaubert was accused of embezzlement at the time. In the evening you will reach the motorized sailing yacht Nostromo, a 29 meter long two-master. The princess is in international waters around twelve hours after the start of her flight. The worst seems over.

At home in Dubai, however, you quickly notice that Latifa is missing. A hunt begins. The emir quickly declares the daughter to be the victim of a kidnapping. In order to find out where it is, the most modern technical arsenal is evidently used. The ruler’s helpers presumably also rely on one of the most modern espionage programs ever: Pegasus, a product by the Israeli company NSO, which can completely monitor cell phones. Upon request, the Emir of Dubai had his lawyers “in his capacity as a private person” deny “emphatically” the allegation that he had hacked or attempted to hack the cell phones of people who appear in this story, or commissioned others to do so. However, research by the journalists’ consortium led to the suspicion that the espionage software was being used. It is also certain that the government of the Emirate of Dubai, whose sole ruler is the Emir, had access to Pegasus. This was confirmed by a person with inside knowledge of the Israeli company of ZEIT. According to former NSO employees, the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi, which is part of the United Arab Emirates, was also among the customers.

The specific role Pegasus played in the hunt for Latifa Al Maktum cannot be clarified without a doubt. It is likely that other methods were used in parallel. But one of the numbers in the leak, which Tiina Jauhiainen confirmed to the journalists’ consortium during a meeting in the spring, led to the cell phone that Princess Latifa had left in the toilet at La Serre to be on the safe side. The phone number was targeted just a day after they started fleeing Dubai, according to the leaked data. Since the device was not available for a forensic examination, it remains to be seen whether it was successfully infected with Pegasus.

Actually, Pegasus is reserved for the fight against terrorists and criminals. In an answer to the journalists’ consortium, NSO wrote that their technologies had helped “prevent terrorist attacks, gun violence, car explosions and suicide attacks.” They are also used daily to “break up pedophilia, sex and drug trafficking rings, locate missing and kidnapped children, find survivors under collapsed buildings and protect the airspace from the intrusion of dangerous drones.” The company also stresses that it does not “have access to the data of its customers’ targets” and would investigate “credible allegations of abuse” of its product.

In order to be able to reconstruct the chase, members of the journalists’ consortium spoke to Tiina Jauhiainen and other confidants of the princess in the spring and evaluated English judicial documents . Because a family court in London dealt in detail with the fate of several women from the house of the Sheikh of Dubai, including Princess Latifa, in the course of a previously unfinished custody dispute.

Witness testimony, voice messages and WhatsApp screenshots show that the princess was sending messages to confidants while she was sailing across the Arabian Sea on board the sailing yacht Nostromo . There is no cell phone reception on the high seas, but a satellite service was available to the passengers of the yacht, which allowed access to the Internet. According to witnesses, Latifa Al Maktum used a Finnish cell phone number and a Gmail account while traveling. Apparently she thought she was safe enough.

Suddenly, however, the escape helper who had remained in Oman was no longer available. The travelers then changed course to be on the safe side and headed for the closer Indian coastal region of Goa instead of Sri Lanka.

At home in Dubai, the search radius has apparently been expanded. After the persecutors with the princess’s cell phone number should not have gotten any further, further connections of important confidants should apparently be targeted.

There is strong evidence that the hunters exploited various security holes to find Latifa. A report by the BBC suggested that messages sent from the ship by skipper Hervé Jaubert contained Nostromo geoposition in their metadata . The satellite internet connection on board could also have been a weak point. Recently, USA Today even brought the FBI into play. At the request of the government of Dubai, the US Federal Police obtained geographic information from the provider of the satellite system on the ship. When asked about the case, the FBI refused to comment.

The only thing that is certain is that the escape failed. During the night eight days at sea, the Nostromo was stormed by Indian special forces around thirty nautical miles off Goa. There is a record of a WhatsApp message that Princess Latifa sent to the British human rights activist Radha Stirling at the moment of the storming: “ Please help, “ she wrote, there were men out on the deck and she did not know what was going on.

She was “scared to death” that night, the Finn Tiina Jauhiainen is later quoted in judicial files. The princess was lying face down on the ship’s floor, her hands tied. The Indians shouted who Latifa was until someone finally identified the sheikh’s daughter. That the princess loudly asked for asylum was ignored. The last words of the desperate friend that the Finn remembers: “Shoot me here, don’t bring me back!”

After the yacht was stormed, Emirati security forces brought Princess Latifa back into her father’s hands. The sheikh later stated that it was a “rescue operation”. His daughter was mentally ill, he let it be known that she was now back in the “loving care” of her family. After that, the princess disappeared from the scene for many months.

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The case gives an idea of the consequences of exporting a spy program like Pegasus if it falls into the hands of governments like the one in Dubai. In a letter to the journalists ‘consortium, NSO emphasizes that it has already proven in the past that it is ready and able to switch off customers’ access if it is found to have been misused. A person familiar with operations at NSO said the company terminated its contract with Dubai within the past year after learning of human rights abuses. Possibly the fall of the princess also contributed.

In public, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktum likes to present himself as an educated, cosmopolitan man. He is acquainted with the British Queen, writes poetry, brings women entrepreneurs to international conferences in the emirate, runs a world-class horse breeding business. Under his leadership, Dubai has built an image as a hypermodern, cosmopolitan metropolis. Tourists can visit the world’s tallest skyscraper in the megacity, shop in one of the world’s largest malls — and with all the luxury it is easy to forget about human rights in the country. But the power structures in the Emirates remain reactionary, the sheikh is a sole ruler. He also claims control over the women in his family. That was true even before Latifa’s flight. It also applies afterwards.

On the lists of potential targets for surveillance with Pegasus, which the research consortium was able to see, there are connections of other female members of the ruling family. Just over a year after the drama about Latifa Al Maktum’s escape, one of the sheikh’s wives tried to evade him. Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, married from the Jordanian royal family and former Olympic rider, has two underage children with the ruler. In April 2019, she decided to flee to London with her eleven-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son and not return to Dubai.

The sheikh refused to accept that the children should stay with their mother and brought that custody battle to the family court in London. In this process, Princess Haya stated that her husband’s dealings with Princess Latifa were a reason for her to separate from her husband.

In the process, Latifa’s Finnish friend Tiina Jauhiainen was heard as one of the most important witnesses to Latifa’s situation. The journalist consortium has received a letter that the British Metropolitan Police Jauhiainen delivered in October 2020 on behalf of the Finnish secret service. In it, the service informs her that her Finnish cell phone number is monitored twice a day. She was advised to get a new phone and number. The letter left open which secret service was spying on them.

The leaked data also suggests that people close to Haya have been targeted for Pegasus attacks : members of their security and legal teams, a personal assistant and a horse trainer. Princess Haya did not want to comment because of the ongoing proceedings.

However, the emir has not yet managed to win the custody dispute. Haya testified extensively in London. She accused Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktum of having his daughter Shamsa brutally abducted from Great Britain in 2000 and of forcing her younger sister Latifa back to Dubai in 2002 and 2018. Both daughters were deprived of their freedom. She also reported terrible things about her marriage: In order to intimidate her, weapons and death messages were placed on her bed in the palace. A helicopter landed in front of her house and the pilot threatened to take her to a desert prison. The emir had little to oppose. He refused a statement in London. At the end of 2019, the court officially established firmly that it considers Haya’s allegations to be credible.

The trial is an embarrassment for Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktum. Only: The drama about Princess Latifa is still not over. Earlier this year the BBC released video sequences that Latifa Al Maktum had apparently secretly recorded. In it, the distraught woman reports that she is being held as a “hostage” in a villa that has been sealed off by the police. “Every day I worry about my safety and my life.” She doesn’t know if she’ll ever see the sun again.

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Another longer phase followed without any sign of life from Latifa. As a result, a UN expert body on human rights even asked the government of the United Arab Emirates to prove that the daughter of the Sheikh of Dubai was still alive.

Since mid-May, photos that seem to show Princess Latifa have appeared in loose succession on Instagram, always on the account of her former math teacher and confidante Sioned Taylor. The princess’ long-time friend is always in the picture. The backdrops are different, sometimes it’s a shopping center, then a restaurant. The latest snapshot looks like it was taken at Adolfo Suárez Airport in Madrid. “Great European holidays with Latifa” reads the caption. “We have fun exploring!”

A London law firm also sent letters a few weeks ago claiming to represent Princess Latifa and urging Latifa’s friends to stop speaking publicly about the princess. The princess did not want to talk about her past with reporters from the journalists’ consortium, said a lawyer for the firm, and that she was trying to lead a quiet life.

How meaningful are the photos and legal mail? Is the princess really free? When asked, Sioned Taylor replied that Latifa could move freely outside the Emirates. Taylor’s phone number, however, is also on the leaked list.

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