The Israeli spyware company, NSO Group, has been in the line of fire after a major international investigation, Project Pegasus, exposed 50,000 cell phone numbers of world leaders, diplomats and military-intelligence officials, which company clients in 50 countries targeted for hacking. NBC reports that multiple female Middle Eastern journalists were targeted by Saudi intelligence and social media bot farms it had created. After hacking their phones using Pegasus, they harvested intimate photos and other information from the private devices, then posted them online in an attempt to intimidate and smear the journalists as prostitutes, etc.:
Ghada Oueiss, a Lebanese broadcast journalist at Al-Jazeera, was eating dinner at home with her husband last June when she received a message from a colleague telling her to check Twitter. Oueiss opened up the account and was horrified: A private photo taken when she was wearing a bikini in a jacuzzi was being circulated by a network of accounts, accompanied by false claims that the photos were taken at her boss’s house.
Over the next few days she was barraged with thousands of tweets and direct messages attacking her credibility as a journalist, describing her as a prostitute or telling her she was ugly and old. Many of the messages came from accounts that appeared to support Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, known as MBS, including some verified accounts belonging to government officials.
“I immediately knew that my phone had been hacked,” said Oueiss, who believes she was targeted in an effort to silence her critical reporting on the Saudi regime. “Those photos were not published anywhere. They were only on my phone.”
“I am used to being harassed online. But this was different,” she added. “It was as if someone had entered my home, my bedroom, my bathroom. I felt so unsafe and traumatized.”
It’s an ugly misogynist tactic, but one we’ve become used to seeing from thugs like the Saudis. Though it is meant to attack the victims, we must turn this attack back on the perpetrators and use it to point out their ugliness and transgressive behavior. As Oueiss added:
For Oueiss and several other women whose phones were allegedly targeted, a key part of the harassment and intimidation is the use of private photos. While these photos may seem tame by Western standards, they are considered scandalous in conservative societies like Saudi Arabia and were seemingly used to publicly shame these women and smear their reputations.
“I am an independent, liberal woman and that provokes a misogynistic regime,” Oueiss said…
“They wanted to destroy the image of Ghada, the serious journalist who is not afraid to ask tough questions,” she said. “They wanted to say, ‘She’s trying to be professional and serious, but she’s just a prostitute and you shouldn’t believe her anymore.’ I know they want to silence me, but I will not be silenced.”
Oueiss responded to this attack by filing a lawsuit against both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the ruler of UAE. A Saudi hit squad employed Pegasus to hack and track the cell phones of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi before they murdered him; along with his ex-wife and fiancée. Both countries are among the most lucrative of NSO’s clients.
US Pension Fund is Novalpina-NSO’s Lead Outside Investor
In addition, a legal dispute among the partners of the company’s lead investor, Novalpina Partners, has led to a looming change of ownership. The Guardian reports that the investor group’s three partners, including lead investor, Stephen Peel, had a falling out and have lost control of their major asset. As a result, outside investor pension funds in the US and UK have taken control. The lead fund, the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System, whose investments are administered by the Oregon State Treasury, has brought in Berkeley Research Group in order to liquidate Novalpina’s assets including NSO. Presumably, this means that the Israeli company will be seeking yet another investor to finance its depradations.
Private equity plays a critical role in the proliferation of this dangerous technology. Though there may be a market among clients for this product, it could never have become the lucrative field it has without vulture capitalists eager to cash in. Microsoft’s Brad Smith published a scathing attack on NSO in which he wrote:
We need steps to ensure, for example, that American and other investors don’t knowingly fuel the growth of this type of illegal activity.
Following on this, several US House Democrats published Enough is Enough, in which they called for federal legislation sanctioning such investors by:
Ensur[ing] that the NSO Group and companies engaged in similar activities do not access American investors funds—including through a potential IPO—through SEC regulations that would protect non-securitized capital from funding their activities.
The fact that a US public pension fund would participate in such a scheme should be a scandal among its pensioners and board. In fact, one of the key elements in PERS’ mission is:
We inspire trust through transparency and ethical, sound judgment.
BRG, tasked with getting the biggest bang for the Novalpina outside investors’ buck, also lists ethical principles among its guiding corporate vision:
Since its inception, BRG has operated in a manner consistent with these goals. We strive to advance the UNGC’s ten universally accepted principles covering human rights, the environment, and anti-corruption through our approach to business and our engagement with our stakeholders and communities.
Though BRG would appear to be playing a somewhat limited role as liquidator of Novalpina, it should by rights rewrite this statement and drop any reference to human rights and anti-corruption, because NSO is one of the world’s leading violators of privacy and human rights, in addition to being a company whose business practices are steeped in bribery and corruption. Alternatively, it could assume real responsibility for the company and sell NSO to an investor contractually obligated to radically transform its business model.
The Guardian notes that the Israeli government would likely have a say in the matter, since NSO is an important asset to the Israeli military-intelligence apparatus.
NSO’s Financial Troubles
Besides the troubles mentioned above, the last 18 months of the COVID pandemic have chased away clients and NSO’s revenues have fallen substantially. The corporate bond rating company, Moody’s, has lowered the company’s financial status, saying that the shortfall may impact its ability to repay tens of millions in loans coming due in the coming year.
The Guardian story also reveals that NSO created an ethics advisor board ostensibly to offer it guidance on how to conduct its business ethically. Among its members were former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, former Obama Homeland Security official, Julie Kayyem, and Cherie Blair, Tony Blair’s wife and a human rights lawyer. The real purpose of the board was to whitewash the dirty business NSO’s clients engage in through its major product, Pegasus.
One of the major demands of the NGOs which revealed the extent of NSO’s penetration of the world’s cell phones is to pressure private investors to stop doing business with it. Without access to capital, companies like it cannot survive. It is shocking that PERS and other public pension funds in which public employee retirees have invested their savings should be willing to do business with such reprehensible scoundrels. If their members knew they were financial partners in the crimes in which Pegasus has been implicated (like the murder of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi), they would be shocked.