Cambridge University halts $550mn deal with UAE over Pegasus spyware

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Students at a Cambridge University college in Cambridge, eastern England, on 14 March 2018 ( Photo by AFP)

The proposed $550 million deal between the University of Cambridge and the United Arab Emirates is on hold due to the Persian Gulf state’s use of Pegasus spying software, the university’s vice-chancellor has said.

Cambridge’s outgoing vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, said in an interview that “the revelations about Pegasus caused us to decide that it’s not the right time to be pursuing these kinds of really ambitious plans with the UAE.”

“There are existing relationships across the University on a departmental and individual academic level but there are no conversations about a big project. It’s all on hold for now.”

When the deal was announced last summer, the university called it a “pioneering collaboration” in the fields of sustainability, education, arts and culture.

“This is an exciting and unique opportunity for world-leading collaborations on efforts to transform economies and societies,” a university spokesperson said in July.

Vice-chancellor Toope was in full support of the partnership at the time, despite saying that he was aware of allegations of human rights abuses by the Persian Gulf monarchy.

After the recent Pegasus spyware revelations, Cambridge halted communications with the UAE, Toope said.

The deal would have been the largest donation from a single source in the history of the university.

In July, shortly after the Cambridge-UAE partnership was announced, the Pegasus Project revealed that more than 400 UK mobile phone numbers appeared in a leaked list of numbers identified by government clients of the Israeli spyware maker between 2017 and 2019. The UAE was identified as one of the 40 countries that had access to Pegasus, and the principal country linked to the UK numbers.

In the Pegasus Project, the news outlets identified numbers on a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets belonging to 10 prime ministers, three presidents and a king, in addition to more than 600 other government officials and politicians, 189 journalists and 85 human rights activists.

Pegasus, made by the Israeli firm NSO Group, can switch on a phone's camera or microphone and harvest its data, without the knowledge of its owner.

The spyware also allows its users to monitor conversations, text messages, photos and location, and even encrypted messaging apps such as Signal and WhatsApp. Pegasus can turn phones into remotely operated listening devices.

Last week a High Court judge in London found that Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, hacked the phone of his ex-wife, Princess Haya, and five of her associates including a member of the House of Lords, using Pegasus spyware.

In May 2018, Matthew Hedges, a British academic was arrested in the UAE, and was said to have been held in solitary confinement, tortured and coerced into making a false confession. He was accused of spying for the British government.

After seven months, he was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in November 2018 after the UAE came under international pressure.

“Cambridge knew the reputational risk and damage from discussions with the UAE and hence it tried to keep these discussions secret,” Hedges said following the collapse of the deal on Friday.

The proposed deal was allegedly intended to upgrade the education system in the UAE, and work on questions of climate and energy transition from fossil fuels. It would have also focused on the exchange of Islamic and Western cultures.

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