Spy-tech firms Gamma and Trovicor target Shell Oil in Oman

Not just activists this time, but Western commercial interests

Exclusive The Sultan of Oman's intelligence services are spying on the local operations of British oil company Shell with the aid of controversial European tech companies, the Register has learned.

Documents seen by el Reg reveal that the internal phone systems at Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) - a joint venture between the Omani government and various Western energy companies including Shell - have been tapped on behalf of the Sultan's intelligence service. The work was carried out by two notorious European firms specialising in "lawful interception" of communications: Gamma International and Trovicor.

Gamma has frequently been embroiled in controversy in recent years, particularly after it was found to have been touting for business from the former Egyptian President Mubarak's notorious secret police.

The company has also been implicated in surveillance of Ala'a Shehabi, a journalist, university lecturer and human rights activist from Bahrain, now living in London – as well as human rights activists based in the UAE and Turkmenistan. Gamma's “FinFisher Suite” (which includes Trojans to infect PCs, mobile phones, other consumer electronics and servers, as well as technical consulting) is regarded as some of the most advanced interception technology available on the commercial market.

Gamma was already known to have a relationship with the Omani regime, generally thought to be primarily aimed at surveillance of the local population's communications. However it has now emerged that the company is also specifically targeting foreign organisations, including British ones like Shell. In addition, the documents reveal that a commercial operation in Oman being conducted by Blighty's Oxford University - the setting up of Muscat University - is also being specifically targeted by Gamma and Trovicor on behalf of the Sultan's spooks.

Trovicor, acting as sub-contractor to Gamma in spying on PDO and Muscat Uni - according to the documents seen by The Register - was recently named as an “Enemy of the Internet” by freedom of speech watchdog Reporters Without Borders. The firm has been questioned over its human rights record, in particular during a hearing before the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights in 2010 about its engagement with the governments of Iran, Bahrain and Syria – each notorious for torture and imprisonment of journalists and dissidents.

Formerly a sub-division of Nokia Siemens Networks, in 2009 Trovicor was “spun out” as a German firm, maintaining branches in Dubai and Islamabad, as well as Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Lebanon. The company's Beirut office, according to the documents, is responsible for work in Oman.

The documents show how Trovicor and Gamma International were jointly tasked in 2010 to install a new piece of telecommunications equipment which would listen in on all phone calls made at PDO. The content of the calls would then be delivered to a “monitoring center” believed to be operated by the Omani intelligence services.

Shell owns a 34 per cent interest in PDO, in a “production sharing agreement” with the Omani government, who own sixty percent of the firm. Overall, PDO is responsible for extracting most of the country's gas supply and around 70 per cent of its oil reserves.

Numerous current and former Shell engineers and management staff, known for their expertise in delivering long term energy projects, are seconded to or directly employed by PDO, and are using the phone systems listened into by the Omani security services. These include Managing Director Raoul Restucci, who was previously Executive Vice-President for Shell in the Middle East and North Africa Division.

Though the company is joint owned, industry insiders with experience working on similar “production sharing agreements” say the ability of the Omani government to listen in on the phone conversations of Shell employees seconded to PDO could prejudice regular commercial negotiations between the two parties over the sharing agreement.

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021