Former Obama admin official quits Israeli spyware firm NSO amid press freedom row


Press freedom advocates have criticised a former Obama administration official for her role as senior adviser to the NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company, forcing her to step down.

Juliette Kayyem, a high-profile national security expert and Harvard professor, resigned as a senior adviser to NSO one day after a controversy over her role at the spyware group prompted Harvard to cancel an online seminar she was due to host.

The now cancelled “webinar”, was supposed to focus on female journalist safety. But officials from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), among others, criticised Kayyem’s work for NSO, whose technology is claimed to have been used to target journalists and human rights campaigners.

Ahmed Zidan, CPJ’s digital manager, said in a tweet that the former Homeland Security official’s role at the event was akin to inviting a “coal executive to talk about renewable energy”.

The decision by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center to cancel the event after receiving criticism of Kayyem’s involvement in the webinar is the latest sign that spyware companies are coming under increasing scrutiny.

NSO has denied any spying allegations.

The company has said its technology is only intended to be used to fight crime and that it investigates allegations of wrongdoing by customers who license its technology.

But since that announcement, NSO has faced allegations that its technology has been used to target members of civil society. WhatsApp, the popular messaging app, is suing NSO in a US court and has alleged that the company’s spyware was used to hack 1,400 of its users over a two-week period last year. NSO has denied the allegations.

The company is also reportedly under investigation by the FBI, according to Reuters, and is facing separate lawsuits in Israel. Last week, a New York Times reporter working with Citizen Lab alleged his phone had been targeted by Saudi Arabia using NSO technology. The company has denied the allegation.

The latest controversy began when the Shorenstein Center announced last week it would host a “webinar” featuring Kayyem that was focused on ways female journalists could protect themselves, both on- and offline.

In tweets that appear to have since been deleted, Kayyem joked that she would not be teaching women how to take down 200lb men, but that she would be offering advice to women that they might not like to hear, like not posting realtime photos of their children.

Press freedom advocates questioned the Shorenstein Center’s decision on Twitter. One campaigner, Courtney Radsch, noted the irony of Kayyem’s involvement, and said she wondered if the event would cover how journalists could protect themselves from NSO Group’s signature technology, Pegasus, which has been described as sophisticated malware that is almost impossible to detect.

A spokeswoman for the Shorenstein Center declined to comment on the decision to cancel the event.

But a person familiar with the matter said the event’s organisers had not been familiar with Kayyem’s connection to NSO until after it was pointed out by critics on Twitter. Once her work for NSO was discovered, the person said it confronted Kayyem and that there was “no question” that it would be cancelled.

When the Guardian approached NSO late on Monday, the company said in an emailed statement that Kayyem had stepped down from NSO. (Source: The Guardian)