New York – Today Access Now called on The Blackstone Group to halt its pending deal with NSO Group, a purveyor of surveillance technology that has been used by governments to spy on activists around the world.
Earlier this year, Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline — together with civil society group R3D Mexico and Citizen Lab — helped uncover a massive surveillance scandal in Mexico, in which activists’ devices were infected by a highly invasive form of malware. That surveillance technology is produced by NSO Group Technologies, which has become notorious for selling its privacy-threatening tech to governments around the world, regardless of their human rights records.
NSO Group has admitted to selling its surveillance technology to the government of Mexico, but claims to have no knowledge of how the technology is deployed. To date, no one has been held accountable for the harms suffered by activists, journalists, and opposition lawmakers in Mexico. NSO Group’s technology has also been used to target world-renowned human rights activist and blogger Ahmed Mansoor, who is currently in prison in the United Arab Emirates. Mansoor’s iPhone was infected with malware in an attempt to turn it into a tracking device and infiltrate his network of fellow activists.
Access Now is circulating a public petition calling for signatures, which states: “We urge the Blackstone Group to immediately drop plans to invest in NSO Group and its surveillance technology and to publicly commit to a plan to ensure its current and future investments will not facilitate human rights violations.”
“In our more than six years of working on surveillance technology, this is the most egregious example of investors openly flouting human rights norms in pursuit of profit,” said Deji Bryce Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now. “Blackstone is making a clear statement to its investors that it’s willing to trample on human rights defenders. The deal represents the worst excesses of New York finance combined with Silicon Valley technogreed.”
“The Blackstone Group has a legal responsibility to respect human rights, and a moral duty to avoid profiting off violations,” said Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now. “NSO Group is a publicly notorious, shady player in surveillance tech, and Blackstone must perform adequate due diligence and put a plan in place to ensure its acquisition respects human rights – and its own corporate responsibility commitments. If not, Blackstone should immediately drop the deal.”
Toronto-based Citizen Lab and the London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, which work closely with Access Now, have written to The Blackstone Group with urgent questions, seeking transparency on whether the investment house has done its research on how NSO products are being used to violate human rights, and how Blackstone plans to prevent these harms if the acquisition goes through.
NSO Group is currently owned by San Francisco-based private equity firm Francisco Partners, and the deal would result in Blackstone buying 40% of the company with a separate investor, ClearSky, buying 10% at a valuation of about $1 billion. Francisco Partners would remain 40% owner of NSO Group.
Access Now will deliver its petition to The Blackstone Group’s headquarters in New York over the coming weeks.