Scottish broadband rollout firm linked to Pegasus spy spyware

One of the firms building broadband services across Scotland’s towns and cities is backed by a state-owned Emirati company which invested in an Israeli firm behind controversial spyware called Pegasus.

CityFibre — which is rolling out a fibre optic network infrastructure across the UK — has received £800m from Mubadala Investment Company (Mubadala), an Abu Dhabi fund owned by the state.  

In April, the Financial Times reported that Mubadala Capital, part of Mubadala, had invested in NSO Group — an Israeli tech firm known globally for making hacking software called Pegasus. 

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Pegasus can be installed remotely without a surveillance target ever having to open a document or website link. Once a phone has been infected with Pegasus, it can read messages and emails, listen to calls, record passwords, and even track visited locations.

NSO Group says that Pegasus is sold only to government agencies to target criminals and terrorists. However the spyware is alleged to have been deployed by foreign governments against dissidents, journalists, diplomats and members of the clergy. 

In April this year it was reported that the office of then UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, had been targeted by a suspected spyware attack using Pegasus. In November 2021, the US Government blacklisted NSO Group saying it had acted “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US”.

CityFibre describes itself as the “UK’s largest independent, wholesale only, fibre operator”. Its ultimate parent company is called Connect InfrastructureTopco Limited (CITL), which appointed Khaled Alqubaisi as a director in June this year. 

Once a phone has been infected with Pegasus, it can access all its information without a surveillance target ever having to open a document or website link. Image credit: Chris Yang

Alqubaisi, from Abu Dhabi, is chief executive officer of infrastructure investments at Mubadala, which has been a shareholder in CITL since August 2021, according to Companies House.

CityFibre is currently engaged in a £4bn investment programme to roll out fibre infrastructure to up to eight million UK homes by 2025. 

Ross Greer MSP, of the Scottish Greens, said: “Despite the billions it spends on PR and whitewashing its abuses, the Emirate regime is a brutal and authoritarian dictatorship, and I would be concerned about it having any aspect of influence or control over our vital infrastructure.”

He added: “NSO’s spyware has been implicated in the targeting of human rights defenders and even linked to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi (a Saudi Arabian dissident journalist murdered in Turkey) Pegasus is a particularly sinister piece of surveillance technology that has been used by despots and human rights abusers all over the world.”

Naomi McAuliffe, programme director for Amnesty Scotland, said: “Last year Amnesty revealed that NSO group profit from widespread human rights violations through the distribution and use of its Pegasus spyware which has been used for unlawful targeted surveillance of activists and journalists.

“While the company claimed its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it’s clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse. NSO group paint a picture of legitimacy, while profiting from widespread human rights violations.”

NSO group paint a picture of legitimacy, while profiting from widespread human rights violations.

Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty Scotland

The Scottish Government has committed to providing superfast broadband access — speeds of at least 30 Mbps — to every home and business in Scotland through a project called Reaching 100 per cent (R100).

Commercial operators include CityFibre and the firm has been working in Glasgow and Edinburgh this year. 

The Glasgow city region rollout spans seven of the local authority areas from Renfrewshire in the west to North and South Lanarkshire in the east and Glasgow City, East Renfrewshire and East and West Dunbartonshire Councils in between. 

In total, more than 2600km of fibre optic infrastructure is being laid in the project – equivalent to the distance from Glasgow to Moscow.

The project forms part of CityFibre’s £4bn Gigabit City Investment Programme which will reach 285 cities, towns and villages across the UK. 

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “CityFibre is the UK’s largest independent fibre operator and a significant investor in Scotland. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring more rural homes and businesses will access faster broadband and is investing to extend broadband infrastructure across rural Scotland, despite telecoms powers being reserved to the UK Government. Scottish Government programmes have connected nearly one million premises to faster broadband so far.” 

Mubadala, CityFibre and NSO Group were asked to comment.

Photo thanks to Tmthetom, CC BY-SA 4.0

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