Snowden: People Who Bankroll the Spyware Industry Should Be in Prison

Snowden: People Who Bankroll the Spyware Industry Should Be in Prison
Photo: The Guardian, Getty Images

Famed whistleblower Edward Snowden has a new blog on Substack and, naturally, he has some opinions about the recent NSO Group controversy: namely, that people who bankroll companies like it should see jail time.

Snowden’s “Continuing Ed” launched a couple of weeks ago and, unsurprisingly, it’s all about surveillance and privacy. The former NSA contractor who spilled the beans about the government’s global spying programs back in 2013 has spent most of his time since then talking to anybody who will listen about digital insecurity, so it only makes sense that he would get on the Substack train.

That makes the NSO Group’s ongoing downward-and-aflame trajectory a pretty perfect topic for him to cover. Over the last week, news outlets throughout the world have publicly flogged the Israeli spyware firm for its practice of selling to abusive governments. Critics say the company’s commercial malware, Pegasus, has been used to target the phones of journalists, human rights attorneys, politicians, and was even allegedly discovered on the devices of family members of murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Most recently, the focus has turned to the financial backers of NSO, as news broke Tuesday that Novalpina Capital, the London-based private equity firm that owns a majority stake in the company, would be disbanding.

Novalpina helped NSO’s founders buy back the company from its former owner, California-based private equity fund Francisco Partners in 2019, following rumbles of a scandal involving the spyware vendor at the time. The announcement of Novalpina’s dissolution Tuesday occurs after escalating charges against NSO as well as an ongoing internal squabble within Novalpina itself. It’s unclear what will happen to the entity — as it could be taken over by a third-party, or may sell off its assets in a “fire sale,” Financial Times reports.

Novalpina’s woes and NSO’s powerful political connections have opened up a larger conversation about the private surveillance industry and the need for protection against its abuses.

Snowden, for his part, writes that NSO is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an out-of-control spyware industry — and that targeting the financial backing of firms like Novalpina is one way that legislators could hold companies accountable.

“An Industry like this, whose sole purpose is the production of vulnerability, should be dismantled,” Snowden writes, clearly not pulling any punches. “We do not permit a market in biological infections-as-a-service, and the same must be true for digital infections. Eliminating the profit motive reduces the risks of proliferation while protecting progress, leaving room for publicly-minded research and inherently governmental work.”

Most pertinently, Snowden basically says that if financial firms are not willing to divest from the spyware industry, their owners should be behind bars:

It is crucial to understand that neither the scale of the NSO Group’s business, nor the consequences it has inflicted on global society, would have been possible without access to global capital from amoral firms like Novalpina Capital (Europe) and Francisco Partners (US). The slogan is simple: if companies are not divested, the owners should be arrested.

For a guy who spent most of his life neck-deep in computer languages, Snowden is actually a really good writer. At one point, he refers to iPhones as “the latte-class’ shiny slabs of status” — a wonderful descriptor. He also doesn’t mince words when it comes to slamming NSO for its abhorrent business practices:

Khashoggi is merely the most prominent of Pegasus’ victims — due to the cold-blooded and grisly nature of his murder. The NSO Group’s “product” (read: “criminal service”) has been used to spy on countless other journalists, judges, and even teachers. On opposition candidates, and on targets’ spouses and children, their doctors, their lawyers, and even their priests. This is what people who think a ban is “too extreme” always miss: this Industry sells the opportunity to gun down reporters you don’t like at the car wash.

You can read Snowden’s full blog right here.