The embattled Israeli surveillance for hire spyware firm NSO Group is reportedly ratcheting up its U.S. lobbying efforts in a desperate attempt to get it’s name removed from a U.S. trade blacklist. That blacklist, and the stigma surrounding it, have reportedly derailed NSO’s efforts to sell off its business to prospective American buyers.
Accoridng to a Tuesday ProPublica report, NSO’s reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this year alone on lobbying, public relations firms, and other groups all attempting to cozy up with U.S. lawmakers and media outlets on the surveillance firm’s behalf. NSO was once feared globally for its industry-leading zero-click hacking tool Pegasus, capable of surreptitiously infecting a target’s phone, granting the attacker nearly unlimited access to the device’s content. That was then. In recent months, NSO has found itself besieged by lawsuits, hemorrhaging sales, unpaid debts, media pushback, and domestic scandals. As it turns out, allegedly selling your tools to clients who use it to attack journalists, political leaders, human rights activists, and children, only has a certain shelf life.
Which brings us to NSO’s escalating adventures in the U.S. Though NSO has reportedly considered selling off its company since at least December, those talks heated up last month with reports indicating strong interest from U.S. defense firm L3Harris Technologies. Those efforts were quickly put on hold following backlash from the Biden Administration who warned the deal posed “serious counterintelligence and security concerns.” In a statement sent to Gizmodo, a White House official said they opposed any deal that would potentially allow a foreign company to skirt blacklist restrictions. Now, according to reporting in The Guardian this week, it appears complications around the blacklist were simply too much of a headache for L3Harris. The deal, for now, appears dead.
“If the [US] government is not aligned, there is no way for L3 to be aligned,” a source familiar with the deal said in an interview with The Guardian.
The deal’s downfall was applauded by privacy and digital rights organizations like AccessNow, which vigorously opposed the effort from the start.
“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,” Access Now Tech-Legal Counsel Natalia Krapiva said in a statement. “Such a deal is a blatant attack on human rights globally and U.S. national security interests.”
NSO did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Currently, NSO stands little chance of pulling off an American deal with the U.S. blacklist hovering over its head. According to the ProPublica report, NSO’s lobbyists are trying to raise the issue of removing them from that list during an upcoming meeting between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. The company’s lobbyists already reportedly tried and failed to set up a meeting between company reps and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Getting their name knocked off the trade blacklist poses a clear, immediate challenge for NSO, however, documents discovered by ProPublica show the company’s U.S. lobbying efforts actually briefly preceded the blacklisting. Back in July 2021, NSO reportedly hired Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman law firm for about $75,000 per month to advise it on U.S. tenders and compliance requirements. Since then, NSO has repeatedly signed agreements with multiple organizations, including Bluelight Strategies, a D.C.based public relations and media consulting firm with reported ties to the Democratic party. NSO reportedly forked over $100,000 to Bluelight for two months of work, ProPublica notes.
Still, at least for now, all of NSO’s efforts have failed to gain much traction with anyone who really matters. The lobbying campaign has reportedly drawn little response, and NSO hasn’t even been told what it needs to do to theoretically be removed from the U.S. blacklist.