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Looks like the Saudi Arabian government is interested in cyber security

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September 28, 2015

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Last year, the Saudi Arabian government came very close in acquiring a majority share in Italian surveillance software firm Hacking Team.

Wafic Said, a British-based, Syrian-born businessman who is friends with the Saudi royal family, and Ronald Spogli, a former U.S. ambassador to Italy, who indirectly owned a stake in Hacking Team, tried to reach a deal which ultimately fell through in April of last year.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of the Saudi intelligence service and former Saudi ambassador to Washington, strongly backed the proposed deal before he was removed from office.

His successor Gen Youssef al-Idrissi failed to share this enthusiasm, causing the proposed deal to collapse at the very last minute.

The shaky deal was revealed in leaked emails (available via WikiLeaks) resulting from a wide-ranging security breach against The Hacking Team back in July 2015. And that's when the whole thing became public news.

Negotiations to sell The Hacking Team to Said's investment company Safinvest began in late 2013. By February 2014, a price of US $42 million had been agreed and plans to rebrand the acquired company as “Halo” had already been drawn up in a rush.

In other various emails, Hacking Team CEO David Vincenzetti expressed support for the idea of setting up a new company outside of Europe and away from the reach of tighter export controls for surveillance technologies due to come with the implementation of the Wassenaar Arrangement.

If the whole deal sounds secretive, it's because it is. "The new company 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 said in an email to business advisors in January 2014.

"We would like the new firm to be in a country which will not impair the export of our technology," he was quoted in saying.

A company owned by the regional government of Lombardy had a 26.2 percent stake in The Hacking Team, whose clients included Italy’s foreign intelligence service AISE.

Those links apparently didn’t act as any kind of impediment to the proposed deal, however. Marco Lillo, the Italian journalist who first reported on the proposed Saudi buyout for the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, noted-- "The 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."

And Lillo might have a point there. But Eric Rabe, a spokesman for The Hacking Team, told us that talks to sell The Hacking Team had never been close to completion.

He added-- "As you know, every business has many conversations with potential business partners, clients and others that never result in anything," adding that the "Hacking Team does not confirm the reports of discussions with Saudi interests, and we continue to work on improving the technology so that law enforcement clients can resume investigations."

He defended the sale of its spyware-for-cops technology to authoritarian governments, such as the government of Saudi Arabia, who are also allies to the United States.

Source: The Il Fatto Quotidiano Newspaper.

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