To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing in regards to recent reporting that Jefferies Financial Group is “advising and leading the financing” of the recent acquisition–with support from Novalpina Capital–by NSO Group management of the NSO Group company and that Jefferies Financial Group is in discussions with “select institutional lending firms” to measure interest in a syndicated loan backing this recent buyout.
The purpose of this letter is to alert Jefferies Financial Group and lending firms interested in the syndicated loan to the Citizen Lab’s structured, evidence-based research into the abuse of NSO Group spyware, as well as investigations and research conducted by organizations such as Amnesty International, security companies, and the security team at Google Inc.
This research consistently supports the position that NSO Group fails to engage in adequate due diligence concerning the sale of their Pegasus spyware and its human rights impacts. It also supports the view that there is widespread misuse of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware by NSO Group’s clients and that NSO Group has failed to prevent or mitigate such activity.
Citizen Lab research on NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware
Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary research laboratory based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. Since 2016, we have published a total of 11 reports regarding NSO Group’s spyware. These reports provide empirical evidence that NSO Group’s technology has been used abusively and illegally to spy on civil society, human rights defenders, and journalists, among other targets. The technical and other methods underpinning this research are rigorous, transparent, and peer-reviewed, and have not been challenged by the global scientific community.
A detailed summary of our reporting on NSO Group is available in our recent submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Our reporting describes the targeting with Pegasus spyware of Ahmed Mansoor, an internationally-renowned Emirati human rights defender who has been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in the United Arab Emirates for posts he made on Twitter and Facebook. In Mexico, a total of 24 individuals have been abusively and illegally targeted, including journalists, anti-corruption advocates, opposition politicians, public health scientists, and at least one minor child. Our reporting also details the targeting of Omar Abdulaziz, a well-known Saudi activist and Canadian permanent resident who was in close communication with Jamal Khashoggi before the Saudi journalist was murdered.
Additional targeting and concerns regarding NSO Group’s Pegasus
In addition to Citizen Lab reporting on Pegasus, other reports have confirmed the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus to target human rights actors in violation of their internationally-recognized human rights. In August 2018, Amnesty International reported that one of its staff members had been targeted with NSO Group spyware. In November 2018, it was confirmed that Ghanem al-Masarir, based in London, U.K., was targeted with NSO Group spyware. Al-Masarir is a prominent Saudi dissident, well known for his YouTube comic and satirical work. In February 2019, a group of leading international human rights organizations penned a letter to Novalpina Capital, copying Francisco Partners and NSO Group, with a list of concerns regarding due diligence and business practices in place at both companies. Further, NSO Group is the subject of multiple lawsuits in connection to allegations that its products have been used for abusive and illegal purposes against civil society, journalists, and political dissidents, as well as an ongoing investigation in Mexico.
As detailed above, numerous reports document the widespread and abusive deployment of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware against civil society. Despite this reporting, it appears that NSO Group has not taken any steps to remedy the human rights impact of its technology or its abusive deployment by clients. With this in mind, I hope that Citizen Lab’s research–as well as that of other well-respected organizations–will be incorporated into due diligence work undertaken by Jefferies Financial Group and lending firms interested in the syndicated loan going forward. Additionally, I would appreciate a response from Jefferies Financial Group as to how it fulfilled its responsibilities under its own corporate social responsibility principles as well as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in providing a loan to NSO management in support of the NSO Group buyout, given that NSO Group is facing multiple serious allegations regarding its lack of due diligence and concern for human rights.
Ronald J Deibert
Professor of Political Science
Director, Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy
University of Toronto