Controversial Israeli spyware developer NSO Group will in the coming months move towards greater transparency and align itself fully with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the company’s owners said over the weekend.
Private equity firm Novalpina, which acquired a majority stake in NSO Group in February, said that within 90 days it would “establish at NSO a new benchmark for transparency and respect for human rights.”
It said it sought “a significant enhancement of respect for human rights to be built into NSO’s governance policies and operating procedures and into the products sold under licence to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”
NSO will also aim to disclose any information unless prohibited by law “or it cannot do so for reasons of public safety, national security, risk of employee harm or to protect legitimate commercial confidentiality.”
The Herzliya-based company’s powerful spyware can hijack smartphones, control their cameras and effectively turn them into pocket-sized surveillance devices.
The company says it provides its software to governments for the sole purpose of fighting terrorism and crime.
But dissidents, journalists and other opposition figures have repeatedly claimed the company’s technology has been used by repressive governments to spy on them. Most notably, the spyware was allegedly used in connection with the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year and whose body has never been found.
Last month London-based Amnesty International, together with other human rights activists, filed a petition to the District Court in Tel Aviv to compel Israel’s Defense Ministry to revoke the export license it granted to the company that Amnesty said has been used “in chilling attacks on human rights defenders around the world.”
NSO Group has said it operates according to law and “adheres to a clear ethical policy that is meant to prevent misuse of its technology. NSO only licenses its technology to approved government intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of preventing and fighting crime and terror, according to clear definitions.”
On Friday the Guardian reported that Yana Peel, a well-known campaigner for human rights and a prominent figure in London’s art scene, is a co-owner of NSO, as she has a stake in Novalpina, co-founded by her husband Stephen Peel.
Peel told the Guardian her family “has an investment in Novalpina. I have no involvement in the operations or decisions of Novalpina, which is managed by my husband, Stephen Peel, and his partners.”
But she added that the Guardian’s view of NSO was “quite misinformed.”
She insisted she remained a strong supporter of free speech and human rights and that “these values guide decisions in all aspects of my life and work.”
In May the Financial Times reported that NSO-crafted spyware had infected multiple targeted mobile phones through the popular WhatsApp communications program without any user intervention through in-app voice calls.
An unknown number of people — an amount in the dozens at least would not be inaccurate — were infected with the malware, a WhatsApp spokesman said.
While WhatsApp itself did not confirm NSO’s involvement, a spokesman said the attack had “all the hallmarks of a private company that has been known to work with governments to deliver spyware that has the ability to take over mobile phone operating systems.”
In a statement, NSO Group did not deny that it was behind the software that exploited the vulnerability in WhatsApp. It said it “does not operate the system, and after a rigorous licensing and vetting process, intelligence and law enforcement determine how to use the technology to support their public safety missions.”
AP contributed to this report.