Stop the deal: U.S. defense contractor to buy NSO Group

Originally published June 14, 2022

Update: July 11, 2022 — Yesterday, in response to White House opposition, L3 Harris ended talks to acquire NSO Group.

Update: June 14, 2022 — In response to further reporting on the planned acquisition of NSO Group, a senior White House official said they are “deeply concerned” about the prospective deal, and that any such transaction would raise “serious counterintelligence and security concerns for the U.S. government.” The official stressed that a transaction between a cleared U.S. defense contractor and a company on the U.S. Entity List will not automatically remove said company from the Entity List, and “would spur intensive review.”

Access Now applauds this statement, and calls on the Biden administration to issue an official and public commitment stating that the U.S. government will 1) not support any deal in which a company on the U.S. Entity List secures a U.S. government contract, and 2) oppose any efforts to circumvent the Entity listing, including through assets acquisition by a U.S. company.

According to reports, U.S. defense contractor L3Harris Tech plans to acquire sanctioned spyware maker NSO Group.

NSO Group has been in the international spotlight for their facilitation of human rights abuses around the world, from Palestine to El Salvador to Poland. The spyware was also used to target U.S. diplomats’ phones. These ongoing revelations have led to the U.S. government and other stakeholders taking a number of actions against the company.

Notably, the Biden administration added NSO to its blocked Entity List for violating U.S. national security. This move was so consequential that it reportedly pushed NSO to the brink of financial collapse, leading the firm to consider shutting down Pegasus and selling the company in its entirety. Earlier this year, U.S. venture capital firm Integrity Partners was in its final stage of negotiations to purchase NSO.

“NSO Group should not be rewarded for its facilitation of human rights violations and dangerous business practices with a lucrative offer from a U.S. defense contractor,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now. “Such a deal is a blatant attack on human rights globally and U.S. national security interests. And, it would send a strong signal to the financial sector that the spyware industry is worth the risk, opening the floodgates to more investor support.”

If the Biden administration allows this deal to go forward, not only would it put U.S. national security at risk, it would also directly undermine President Biden’s own democracy agenda. Just recently, at the United States’s own Summit for Democracy, the Biden administration announced the launch of the Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative — a long-overdue plan for the U.S. and allies to develop human rights-based export controls “to curb the proliferation of technology that has been misused by governments for repression.” Also, at this month’s RightsCon summit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of holding abusive tech companies accountable.

“The spyware peddled by NSO Group is unsafe in any hands,” said Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now. “Access Now and our partners reject the proposal for a U.S. firm to buy this sanctioned company. It is as an affront to human rights and the Biden administration’s expressed commitments to ‘digital democracy.'”