A vigil on the one-year anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on Capitol Hill. Image: POMED via Flickr

Widow of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi files suit against Pegasus spyware maker

A widow of the slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi filed suit against the spyware purveyor NSO Group on Thursday, alleging that by placing sophisticated Pegasus software on her phone the company forced her to stop working, fear for her family’s safety and resulted in her “constantly looking over her shoulder.”

Hanan Elatr Khashoggi is seeking unspecified damages in the suit, which alleges NSO Group violated federal and Virginia hacking laws by selling its powerful and often undetectable spyware to repressive foreign governments.

Pegasus software has drawn international attention since Khashoggi’s killing and has recently surfaced in campaigns targeting dissidents, opposition politicians and journalists in Spain, Greece, Poland, Hungary and other countries.

Elatr Khashoggi’s suit alleges that in April 2018, while working as a flight attendant, she arrived at Dubai International Airport and was blindfolded, handcuffed and taken to an interrogation cell where she was questioned about Jamal Khashoggi for several hours. Her lawsuit states that researchers have determined that spyware was likely installed on her device during the interrogation.

"Hanan was detained and her captors took both of her cellphones that she had been using to communicate with Jamal,” the complaint alleges.

In 2021, the Washington Post reported that the United Arab Emirates — a close ally of Saudi Arabia and a repressive government known for jailing human rights activists it targets with Pegasus — had placed the advanced spyware on Elatr Khashoggi’s phone.

Jamal Khashoggi, then 59, was killed in Istanbul’s Saudi consulate months after his wife was detained, on October 2, 2018. He is also believed to have been tracked by Pegasus.

NSO Group, a subsidiary of Q Cyber Technologies, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Underscoring the power of its technology, the defense contractor L3 Harris negotiated to acquire the firm before dropping out after intense public pressure from the Biden administration, which blacklisted the spyware company in 2021.

The suit asserts that Khashoggi has been unable to travel to the Middle East for years due to fears for her physical safety, isolating her from family.

“Hanan is still suffering from the effects of the NSO Group infiltration of her devices today,” the suit alleges. “She lives in a state of constant hyper-vigilance, unable to safely participate in social activities, constantly looking over her shoulder.”

The suit, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages, condemns NSO Group for long infringing upon the “basic principles of personal freedom and the fundamental right to privacy through the creation, sale, and operation of highly sophisticated and malicious spyware.”

It further argues that NSO’s actions have “resulted in disastrous outcomes, including intimidation, physical injury, and death” and that for Elatr Khashoggi, this intimidation has been responsible for “forever altering her life.”

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Suzanne Smalley

Suzanne Smalley

is a reporter covering privacy, disinformation and cybersecurity policy for The Record. She was previously a cybersecurity reporter at CyberScoop and Reuters. Earlier in her career Suzanne covered the Boston Police Department for the Boston Globe and two presidential campaign cycles for Newsweek. She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.