Jefferson Morley | March 24, 2020
Biden Briefer Defended Israeli Spyware Firm Implicated in Abuses
After last night’s Democratic presidential debate, Anita Dunn, senior adviser to the Biden campaign, spun reporters on the Vice President’s performance.
Last years, Dunn, who served as communications director in Barack Obama’s White House, did similar duty for NSO, the spyware firm founded by former Israeli intelligence officers. NSO created the infamous Pegasus intrusion tool, which has been used to harass and disrupt journalists from India to Mexico to Saudi Arabia–and also to pick Jeff Bezo’s pocket.
Dunn’s work for NSO indicates a preference of private power over the public interest. Her condescending remarks about Sanders’ performance embody a certain arrogance that pervades the intersection of big government and corporate power in Washington. She represents the reasons why some Sanders’s supporters are reluctant to support the former Vice President. Dunn, in short, embodies the difficulties of unifying the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic party going into the 2020 presidential election.
What is NSO?
On the trail of NSO, Asher-Schapiro “has been tracking research by Citizen Lab, Amnesty International, and other local and international human rights groups involving journalists targeted by Pegasus, a spyware tool that the NSO Group markets and sells to governments. “
Once covertly installed by means of spear-phishing attacks that trick the recipient into clicking on a malicious link, the technology passes control of a phone’s camera, microphone, and contents to the attacker.”
Last year Asher-Schapiro reported in the Columbia Journalism Review on
an attempted Pegasus attack targeting Griselda Triana, the widow of Mexican journalist Javier Valdez. Valdez, the winner of CPJ’s 2011 International Press Freedom Award, was murdered in May 2017; the Mexican government has not charged anyone for ordering the killing, which CPJ believes was in reprisal for his coverage of narcopolitics.
When Asher-Schapiro sought comment from NSO, he directed his questions to Dunn’s staff. Her aides denied wrongdoing.
“We do not tolerate misuse of our products,” an NSO Group spokesperson told CPJ by email. “We regularly vet and review our contracts to ensure they are not being used for anything other than the prevention or investigation of terrorism and crime.” The spokesperson declined to be named because the comment was from the organization, not an individual.
Who Dunn Defends
The privatization of intrusive surveillance technology has enabled repressive forces in India, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, to spy on independent journalists seeking to hold government accountable. Saudi Arabian intelligence officials reportedly used Pegasus to track dissident Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi before his murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018.
A technical report on the hack of Bezos’s phone (now available on Motherboard) concluded says that the exact type of software used to extract Bezos’s data could not be determined but that it had the same capabilities a as Pegasus.
A backlash against NSO has been growing.
The messaging giant WhatsApp is suing NSO, accusing it of “unlawful access and use” of WhatsApp computers. According to the lawsuit, filed in northern California federal court, the NSO Group developed the malware in order to access messages and other communications after they were decrypted on targeted devices, allowing intruders to bypass WhatsApp’s encryption.
A Washington Post columnist who served as an adviser to NSO recently quit the firm after criticism. Juliet Kayyem, a Harvard professor, resigned after controversy over her role at the spyware group prompted Harvard to cancel an online seminar she was due to host.
The U.S. government and other leading countries will soon require buyers and sellers of intrusion technologies like Pegasus to obtain licenses.
What does Anita Dunn say about defending NSO? Why does Biden rely on her? Stay tuned.
Here’s what Dunn says about the Biden campaign a week ago.