You are here

The Money Behind NSO Pegasus: Who Gets Paid When Journalists are Targeted for Surveillance?

Gerry Bello

The Guardian.UK has recently released a series of stories on NSO Pegasus, which is privately funded spyware used by goverments around the world to hack the cellphones of targeted so-called terrorists. Since 2019, this spyware has turned up on the phones of over 180 dissident journalists, and humand rights activists as well as lawyers and loved ones.

NSO's cellphone hacking technology was developed in Israel with help from top Israeli defense officials including Buky Carmeli, the Former Director General and Founder of the Israeli National Cyber Security Authority (NCSA), and Daniel Reisner, sformer head of the IDF’s International “Law” Department. These are men who have spent their entire lives eating and breathing human rights violations and war crimes along with the associated half-explanations and cover-ups.

NSO's Pegasus software, which is licensed to governments in secret agreements, has been used to target Loujain al-Hathloul, the most prominent women's rights activist in Saudi Arabia. She was abducted and tortured in the United Arab Emirates for three years with help from NSO. In Azerbaijan, Pegasus spyware was used to steal intimate photos of then 18 year old activist and journalist Fatima Movlamli. The photos were posted to a fake facebook page. Movlamli was arrested and violently interrogated. Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was also targeted. It is not clear if Khashoggi himself was hit by the spyware, as his phone was cut to pieces along with his still living body in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey.

Opponents of corrupt and dictatorial regimes in Hungary, India and Mexico have also discovered Pegasus software on their phones. Lawyers in France and the United Kingdom have also been targeted and a total of 180 Pegasus infections have been found on the phones of prominent journalists, activists and lawyers by the joint Guardian – Amnesty International investigation team working on the 2 year program they call the Pegasus Project.

NSO claims that it cuts off clients that use the software for something other than counter-terror purposes, but like any statement that comes out of an IDF lawyer's mouth this is a complete and obvious lie. There are prominent statements on their website, a whistleblower policy and all the other trappings of a corporate governance facade that seems to care.

Although NSO claims to be Israeli, and is headquartered in Tel Aviv, it's majority ownership is not. A controlling share of the company, and it's subsidiary is held by TGP Capital, which is headquartered in San Francisco. Novalpina, a British private equity firm that has overlapping board membership with TGP is also invested. TGP appointed board members are from the United States, the UK, Italy and Germany. Yana Peel, the Canadian wife of UK born Board Member Richard Peel, owns a large share in Novalpina but her husband votes her shares by proxy as she pretends to be concerned with philanthropy and the arts.

TGP is a fund of funds and gets it's investments money from other investment funds. Quite a few of those funds are American. The money comes from the retirement funds of state and county level public employee pensions and retirement funds including the following:

Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, California Public Employees' Retirement System, California State Teachers' Retirement System, Fresno County Employee Retirement Association, Hawaii Employee Retirement System, Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Employees' Retirement Plan, Maryland State Retirement and Pension System, Minnesota State Board of Investment, Missouri Public School Retirement System, New Jersey Division of Investment, New York State and Local Retirement System, New York State Common Retirement Fund, North Carolina Retirement Services, Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund, Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System, Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System, Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, San Diego County Employees Retirement Association, State Board of Administration of Florida, State of Michigan Retirement System, Teachers' Retirement Security for Illinois Educators, Teachers' Retirement System of the City of New York, The University of Texas/Texas A&M Investment Company, Virginia Retirement System, Washington State Investment Board.

One expects that rank and file public sector workers in New York City would be less than happy to know their retirement fund contributions are being used to finance the targeting of journalists and activists for imprisonment, rape, torture, and murder. In 2018 Puerto Rican community groups had previously pressured New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to cease further investments in TGP Capital because of their role in the mass purchase of foreclosed and destroyed homes on the Island Territory following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Thomas DiNapoli is the sole Trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund. That fund alone represented $1.1 billion of TGP Capital's $72 billion under management. DiNapoli has continued these investment contributions into the current year.

NSO has blood money flowing in despite the muted public outcry and lack of accountability. It has re-branded itself as the NSO Group and made it's first acquisition in 2019. It paid $60 million blood soaked dollars for Convexum, a drone hacking company also based in Israel. Convexum has been renamed Eclipse and it's shinny new website mirrors NSO's empty corporate promises about human rights. They claim their technology can force a drone to land for capture if it flies within a certain area.

One would assume this has already been tested on human rights observers in Palestine. Drones are rountinely used by journalists in the United States to document human rights abuses during demonstrations. American security contractors have been documented shooting down drones and targeting drone operators during the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.

Over 30% of NSO's claimed clientele is so-called “law enforcement”. Combining phone hacking and drone hijacking, it is clear that there is little interest on the part of NSO or it's investors in actual counter-terror operations. Their real target is the global public.