PR efforts were needed following a string of lawsuits against the company alleging NSO-developed malware was used to spy on journalists & political dissidents.
An international investigation by over a dozen news outlets including the Guardian and the Washington Post concluded on Sunday that the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group sold “authoritarian governments” around the world hacking software to spy on journalists, politicians and various activists.
The Israeli firm NSO Group, which is alleged to be behind the Pegasus spyware that was used by governments across the world to target their opponents and media figures, once hired the firm of Joe Biden’s senior adviser Anita Dunn, it was claimed.
Biden Adviser’s Company
Anita Dunn is a partner and a founding member of SKDKnickerbocker political consulting firm, according to the company’s website. The webpage states that the adviser, who also previously worked as ex-President Barack Obama’s chief strategist, is currently on leave from SKDK but is expected to return to the company soon.
NSO Group, which is now in the midst of hacking scandal, hired SKDKnickerbocker in spring 2019 to help boost its public image and relations, according to earlier reports by Fast Company and The Intercept.
How Is It Linked to Murdered Journalist Khashoggi?
The PR efforts were needed following a string of lawsuits against the company alleging that NSO-developed malware was used to spy on journalists and political dissidents across the globe. One of the alleged targets was Saudi-born Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Khashoggi’s death was linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by US intelligence, an accusation which has been denied by Riyadh.
In 2018, Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who was close to Khashoggi, filed a lawsuit against the NSO, claiming that the firm helped to spy on Khashoggi through his phone before the journalist’s assassination. The lawsuit also put pressure on Israel at that time for licensing the company’s work with foreign governments where it sold its Pegasus spyware. As of late 2020, an Israel judge has refused to dismiss the case, while Abdulaziz has continued to seek 600,000 shekels in damages from the company.
The work done by Anita Dunn firm for NSO Group and its attempts to “clear up” the company’s image were scrutinised at that time. They were once again brought to light on Sunday amid accusations of a massive spy campaign being launched with NSO equipment against thousands of activists worldwide.
Dunn is on her way out of the Biden White House, but NSO Group, one of her firm’s clients, is now implicated in an anti-democratic scandal. It develops a malware called Pegasus that’s been found on the devices of journalists and human rights activists.https://t.co/nWSCZ8OKYo https://t.co/o8GfZ7ocxk
— Max Moran (@MaxMoranHi) July 18, 2021
In a series of tweets, New York Times journalist Kenneth P. Vogel argued that “some of ANITA DUNN’s private sector work does not exactly align with progressive sensibilities”. He said that the adviser’s firm was getting paid by NSO Group for consultation “until late 2019”, while the spyware scandal was still on the roll.
The Israeli firm NSO GROUP was behind the spyware used to hack journalists & human rights activists, a @WashingtonPost investigation reveals.
Not included in the story:
— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) July 18, 2021
In early July, Anita Dunn told Politico that she was planning to leave the White House post “very shortly”, as she was apparently not willing to stay in her temporary role for long.
NSO Group in Hot Water Again
A joint investigation by 17 media organisations, including the Guardian, Le Monde and the Washington Post revealed on Sunday that multiple human rights activists, politicians, lawyers and journalists have fallen victim to hacking campaigns launched by governments that used NSO Group’s Pegasus software to spy on their opponents.
The investigation, titled the ‘Pegasus Project’, was operated by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories – a group that gets donations from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
The Guardian report detailing the summary of the project’s findings revealed that the media consortium got access to a leaked list containing some 50,000 phone numbers of potential victims of the spying campaign. Pegasus software, which is intended for use against terrorists and other criminals, was allegedly put on the targets’ phones to track their messages, emails and record calls.
The consortium concluded that at least 10 governments that were NSO clients were entering numbers into the system to get them tracked, including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates. The most numbers on the analysed list, 15,000, are said to have come from Mexico.
Governments and NSO React to Accusations
It can’t be said yet whether all of the numbers that appeared on the list were hacked (successfully or unsuccessfully) with the use of Pegasus software, but the Guardian notes that an analysis of a small number of listed phone numbers showed that the majority of them had traces of the Pegasus spyware. The project will be revealing the identities of those people mentioned in the list, including business executives, religious figures and government officials, in the coming days but has already spilled the beans to New York Times, CNN, and Financial Times journalists who could have been targeted by the spying campaign.
Officials in Hungary, India, Rwanda and Morocco have already denied using Pegasus for hacking activities against people mentioned in the list.
NSO Group has long maintained that it “does not operate the systems that it sells to vetted government customers”.
Commenting on the news, the company decried “false claims” about the activities of its clients, calling the 50,000 figure “exaggerated” and saying that the leaked list could not be the one showing numbers “targeted by governments using Pegasus”.