Cambridge University Ends £ 400 Million Deal with United Arab Emirates over Pegasus Spyware Allegations | Cambridge University

Cambridge University has broken off talks with the United Arab Emirates over record-breaking £ 400million collaboration after allegations of Gulf State use of controversial Pegasus hacking software, Vice Chancellor said of the University.

The proposed deal – hailed by the university in July as a “potential strategic partnership … helping solve some of the greatest challenges facing our planet” – would have included the largest such donation in the history of the university, spanning a decade and directly involving the UAE’s investment of over £ 310 million.

But Stephen Toope, outgoing Cambridge vice-chancellor, said in an interview that no meeting or conversation with the UAE takes place after revelations related to Pegasus, software that can hack and secretly take control of a mobile phone.

A spokesperson for the university said he had approached the UAE and other partnerships “with an open mind” and “these are always finely balanced assessments,” adding: “We will reflect in the next few years. months before further evaluating our long-term options with our partners and with the academic community.

The Guardian’s Project Pegasus revealed a leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers believed to be linked to people of interest to clients of NSO Group, the Israeli company behind Pegasus. The main government responsible for selecting hundreds of UK numbers appeared to be the United Arab Emirates, the Guardian has found.

“There were other revelations about Pegasus that really made us decide that now was not the right time to pursue these kinds of really ambitious plans with the UAE,” Toope told the student newspaper Varsity.

Prof Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Photograph: Martin Dee / University of British Columbia

When asked if he would consider continuing the deal in the future, Toope said, “No one is going to rush into this. There will be no secret arrangements. I think we will need to have a solid discussion at some point in the future. Or we can determine that it is not worth increasing again. Honestly, I do not know.

Toope said he has not met the reigning prince of the UAE and is not having any meetings with anyone from the state. “There are relationships across the university at the university and departmental level, but there are no conversations about a big project,” he said. “We are aware of the risks involved in doing business with many states around the world, but we believe it is worth having the conversation.”

News of the potential collaboration, with documents seen by the Guardian detailing “the joint branding of the United Arab Emirates and Cambridge University” and new institutes based in the Gulf state, has sparked an uproar faced with the prospect of financial ties to a monarchy notorious for alleged human rights violations, few democratic institutions and hostility to the rights of women as well as those of LGBTQ + people.

Discussions about the partnership were supported by internal university bodies, despite concerns. But Toope’s remarks suggest that it was the UAE’s alleged use of the controversial hacking software that was responsible for ending the talks.

In July, shortly after the Cambridge-UAE partnership was announced, Project Pegasus revealed that more than 400 UK mobile numbers were on a leaked list of numbers identified by NSO’s government customers between 2017 and 2019. UAE were identified as one of the 40 countries that had access to Pegasus, and the main country linked to UK numbers.

The Cambridge-UAE project was to include a joint innovation institute and a plan to improve and overhaul the UAE’s education system, as well as work on climate change and energy transition. “Are these things important enough that you think we might be able to mitigate the risk?” The answer is: I really don’t know, ”said Toope, who is due to step down at the end of the year.

Dubai, the city of the emirate ruled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has also reportedly been a client of the ONS. The phones of Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter, Princess Latifa, and his ex-wife, Princess Haya, who fled the country and arrived in the UK in 2019, both appeared in the data.

Last week, a High Court judge ruled that Sheikh Mohammed hacked Princess Haya’s phone using Pegasus spyware as part of an illegal abuse of power and trust.

Dubai did not respond to a Guardian request for comment on the Pegasus project at the time. Sheikh Mohammed did not respond, although it is understood that he denies attempting to hack the phones of Latifa or his friends or associates, or ordering others to do so.

In several statements, NSO has said that the fact that a number appears on the leaked list in no way indicates whether a number is being targeted for surveillance using Pegasus. “The list is not a list of Pegasus targets or potential targets,” the company said. “The numbers on the list are in no way related to the NSO group.”

A spokesperson for the university said: “The University of Cambridge has many partnerships with governments and organizations around the world. He approached the UAE like all potential partnerships: with an open mind and rigorously weighing the opportunities to contribute to society – through collaborative research, education and innovation – versus all challenges. “

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