After Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Anita Dunn, senior adviser to Joe Biden’s campaign, defended the vice president’s performance in a briefing with reporters.
Last year, Dunn, who served as communications director in Barack Obama’s White House, did a similar duty for NSO, the spyware firm founded by former Israeli intelligence officers. The NSO Group 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 Bezos’ pocket.
As Avi Asher-Schapiro of the Committee to Protect Journalists noted on Twitter, Dunn is “Managing Director at SKDKnickerbocker, a firm that managed the US public relations work for NSO Group.”
Dunn’s work for NSO indicates a willingness to defend private power against the public interest. Her condescending remarks about Bernie Sanders’ performance evoke the arrogance that pervades the intersection of big government and corporate power in Washington. She represents the reasons why some of Sanders’ supporters are reluctant to support the former vice president. She embodies the difficulty 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,” Asher-Schapiro wrote last year.
Asher-Schapiro reported 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 says, “I would email Dunn’s subordinates at SKDK asking them to kindly provide comments explaining why their client kept being accused of spying on journalists.” He wrote:
“‘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.”
And so Dunn’s role in the defense of NSO was not publicly reported.
Whom Dunn Defends
The privatization of intrusive surveillance technology has enabled repression of independent journalists seeking to hold governments 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.
It may have also been used against the world’s richest man.
A technical report on the hack of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ phone (now available on Motherboard) concluded that the exact type of software used to extract Bezos’ data could not be determined but that it had the same capabilities 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] 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. Juliette 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 such as Pegasus to obtain licenses and thus disclose their identities. Whether this voluntary measure will curb abuses is unknown.
Given Dunn’s role in the Biden campaign, it is fair to ask: Is Biden soft on the abuse of private intelligence? Is he a defender of journalism?