NSO Group human rights

Blackstone won’t invest in the NSO Group’s “toxic” spyware

New York — After facing widespread condemnation from civil society, it appears that investment firm Blackstone Group has ended its bid to purchase a significant portion of Israeli surveillance technology company NSO Group. In late July, reports surfaced that Blackstone would pay $400 million for 40 percent of NSO’s holdings.

Researchers at Citizen Lab, working with Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline and rights groups such as R3D Mexico, uncovered evidence that NSO’s surveillance products have been used to target journalists, human rights defenders, research scientists, and lawyers in Mexico. The proposed deal would have taken place in the wake of new findings demonstrating the abuse of human rights.

“This represents a battle won against surveillance profiteers, and a victory for human rights and corporate responsibility,” said Peter Micek, Access Now General Counsel. “We were surprised to hear Blackstone had considered buying such a toxic asset as NSO Group, and we commend them for dropping the deal.”

“Until Blackstone speaks up,” Micek continues, “we won’t know whether they heard the voices of human rights defenders, journalists, and crime victims whose lives were upended by NSO Group’s tools. But this dead deal should show other private equity firms, including NSO’s current owners Francisco Partners, that there’s nothing to be gained — and a whole lot to lose — by investing in human rights abuse.”

Access Now and other members of civil society denounced the proposed investment in NSO, and informed Blackstone that financially supporting the company’s surveillance products risks human rights. In a petition we addressed to the investment firm — signed by supporters from 61 countries — we referenced the still-unanswered questions by Citizen Lab in its open letter and explained that, “During these negotiations, Blackstone can demand answers from NSO Group, and if it becomes an owner, Blackstone can put an end to NSO Group’s shady practices.” We support Blackstone in its decision, as there remain too many outstanding questions about how NSO operates and whether and how it works to protect human rights.  

“While investors peddle surveillance technology products that watch everyone, the world is watching them,” said Deji Bryce Olukotun, Senior Global Advocacy Manager at Access Now. “It’s time to say that achieving 10x — which is investor-speak for a 10-fold return on an investment — can no longer be code for trampling on human rights. Private equity groups and investment houses don’t get a free pass to throw money at whatever yields profits, regardless of the consequences. NSO’s products have been implicated in rights abuses around the world, and investors want to quietly get away with it. It’s telling that it’s almost impossible to find any mention of NSO Group on Francisco Partners’ website.”