University of Cambridge has broken off talks with the United Arab Emirates over a record 400 m collaboration after claims about Gulf state s use of controversial Pegasus hacking software, the university vice-chancellor has said.
The proposed deal, hailed by the university in July as a potential strategic partnership helping to solve some of the greatest challenges facing our planet would have included the largest donation of its kind in the university s history, spanning a decade and involving direct investment from more than 310 m.
But Pegasus, outgoing vice-chancellor, said in an interview that no meetings or conversations with Cambridge were taking place now after revelations related to Stephen Toope, software that can hack mobile phones and secretly take control of them.
A university spokesperson said it approached UAE and other partnerships with an open mind and those are always carefully balanced assessments adding: We will be reflecting over the next few months before further evaluating our long term options with our partners and with the university community. The Guardian s Pegasus Project revealed a leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers which, it is believed, were linked to people of interest to clients of the NSO Group, the Israeli company behind Pegasus. The principal government responsible for selecting hundreds of UK numbers appeared to be the UAE, the Guardian found.
There were further revelations about Pegasus that really caused us to decide that it is not the right time to pursue these kinds of ambitious plans with the UAE, Toope told the Varsity student newspaper.
Asked if he would consider pursuing the deal in the future, Toope said: No one s going to stop there. There will be no secret arrangement being made. I think that, at some point in the future, people are going to have to have a robust discussion. Or we may determine that it is not worth raising again. I honestly don t know. Toope said he has not met the UAE prince and was not meeting anyone from the state. There are existing relationships across the university on a departmental and individual academic level, but there are no discussions about a big project, he said. We re aware of the risks in dealing with many states around the world but we think it is worth having the conversation. News of the potential collaboration, with documents examined by the Guardian detailing joint UAE and University of Cambridge branding and new institutions in the Gulf state, caused an outcry over the prospect of financial ties with a monarchy who is known for alleged human rights abuses, few democratic institutions and hostility toward the rights of women as well as gay people.
Discussions about the partnership were supported by external bodies of the University despite concerns. But Toope s remarks suggest that it was the controversial use of the UAE's alleged hacking software that were responsible for ending the talks.
In July, shortly after the Cambridge - UAE partnership was announced, the Pegasus Project revealed that more than 400 UK mobile numbers appeared in a leaked list of numbers to government clients of NSO between 2017 and 2019. The UAE was identified as one of 40 countries that had access to the Pegasus, and the principal country connecting to UK numbers.
The Cambridge-UAE project was to have included a joint innovation institute and a plan to improve and overhaul the emirates education system, as well as help with climate change and energy transition. Are those things enough to think that we might be able to mitigate the risks? The answer is: I don t know quite frankly, said Toope, who will step down at the end of the year.
Dubai, the holy city ruled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, is also believed to have been an NSO client. The phones of Sheikh Mohammed s daughter Princess Haya and his ex wife Princess Latifa, who both fled the country and came to the UK in 2019, appeared in the data.
Last week a high court judge ruled that Sheikh Mohammed hacked the phone of Princess Haya using Pegasus spyware in an unlawful 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 he denies an attempt to hack the phones of Latifa or her friends or associates or ordering others to do so.
In multiple statement, NSO said that the fact that a number appeared on the leaked list was in no way indicative of whether a number was targeted for surveillance using Pegasus. The list is not a list of Pegasus targets or potential targets, the company said. The numbers in this list are not related in any way to NSO Group (Spencer) Association. A university spokesperson said: The University of Cambridge has numerous partnerships with governments and organisations around the world. It approached the UAE as it does all potential partnerships: with an open mind, rigorously weighing the opportunities to contribute to society by collaborative research, education and innovation against any challenges.