The controversial Tel Aviv-based intelligence company Black Cube dispatched a flock of covert operatives to probe researchers, lawyers, and a journalist researching the Israeli cyberweapons firm NSO Group, according to a report on Israel’s Channel 12.
Both companies have so far denied any role in the operation, which involved private spies attempting to goad people into making racist and anti-Israel remarks and reveal sensitive information–provocations that one operative tried in a botched attempt in New York last month.
Spies have targeted at least six people in North America and Europe who are connected to ongoing lawsuits against NSO Group, according to a separate report on Monday by the Associated Press.
Channel 12’s report, which aired on Saturday in Israel, included hidden-camera footage of two of NSO’s critics meeting with undercover operatives. The TV report criticized lawsuits against NSO, claiming a “smear campaign” against the company.
NSO Group, based in Herzliya, Israel, makes a secretive cyberweapon that has been used by multiple governments to spy on dissidents, lawyers, journalists, and other opponents. One lawsuit filed against NSO in December 2018 charges that the company’s sophisticated hacking tool—capable of gobbling up everything on a person’s mobile phone–was used to spy on murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
NSO, which is largely owned by American private equity firm Francisco Partners, has said that its sales are legal and that its technology is intended to be used to fight terrorism and crime.
Black Cube, which is based in Tel Aviv and London, says it is a “select group of veterans from the Israeli elite intelligence units” specializing in “tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges.” One of a number of self-described “private Mossads,” the company uses tactics like fake identities designed to gather intelligence and compromise targets—methods it used to approach women who had accused movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct and to probe Obama national security officials.
One Black Cube-linked spy was foiled last month when he tried to entrap John Scott-Railton, a cybersecurity researcher, during a fancy lunch in New York. Scott-Railton works at internet watchdog Citizen Lab, a group based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School whose investigations into NSO’s spyware have been cited in the media and in legal cases against the company.
The mystery man was later revealed by the New York Times and Channel 12 to be Aharon Almog-Assoulin, a retired Israeli security official with previous ties to Black Cube. Another unknown agent, using the name “Gary Bowman,” targeted a Citizen Lab researcher in December.
The AP’s Raphael Satter reported Monday that four new targets of the operation reached out to the AP in recent weeks. Three of the people are lawyers currently working on lawsuits that allege the cyberweapons firm sold its spyware to governments with questionable human rights records. The fourth, a London-based journalist, has been covering the ongoing litigation.
“Two of them–the journalist and a Cyprus-based lawyer–were secretly recorded meeting the undercover operatives,” writes Satter. “Footage of them was broadcast on Israeli television just as the AP was preparing to publish this story. All six of the people who were targeted said they believe the operatives were part of a coordinated effort to discredit them.”
Black Cube did not respond to questions from Fast Company. But the reports by Channel 12 and the AP appear to shed more light on its role in the NSO-focused operation, and on a growing, shadowy spy industry that relies not only on intelligence gathering but provocation.
“That TV program looks like a dramatic turn of events, given the vehement public denials from both companies up to that point,” says Scott-Railton. “Hiring private spies to target an independent research institute is deeply troubling, and reflects a broader trend of interfering with and impairing the work of those engaged in uncovering human rights abuses around the globe.”
Francisco Partners, the San Francisco-based private equity firm that owns most of NSO, declined to comment, and referred a reporter to a spokesperson for the spyware maker.
“These lawsuits are nothing more than an empty PR stunt to continue the propaganda drumbeat against NSO’s work helping intelligence agencies fight crime and terrorism around the globe,” the NSO spokesperson said in an email to Fast Company. “Because of a gag order imposed by the courts, we will have nothing more to say.”
Targets plan legal action
The report by Israel’s Channel 12 describing Black Cube’s involvement took aim at lawsuits against NSO Group, and claimed that one of the lawsuits was partly funded by the Qatari government, apparently irritated by the company’s dealings with regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Channel 12 report also included an interview with a founder of the reclusive NSO Group, Shalev Hulio, calling one of the lawsuits “a public relations stunt.”
Both claims appeared to be based on the secretly recorded footage of the journalist and the Cyprus-based lawyer, excerpts of which were aired by the network.
According to Channel 12, the targeted journalist, Eyad Hamid, told a Black Cube operative that the investigation into NSO Group was partly sponsored by Azmi Bishara, a former Knesset member who allegedly spied for Hezbollah and who now advises the Emir of Qatar.
Hamid, a London-based journalist, disputes the allegation that he received directives from Qatari interests, calling that a mischaracterization of what he actually said.
Hamid tells Fast Company that Black Cube targeted him by appealing to his PhD research and his Syrian ethnicity. After he wrote a story in September about NSO Group, someone posing as a representative of a Brussels-based wealth management firm called Mertens-Giraud Partners (MNG) lured Hamid to a London hotel to interview him for a scholarship the company was offering. Hamid quickly realized the man was more interested in how he gathered information for his story, and if someone in Qatar was behind it.
“Once I saw it heading that direction, I got very suspicious of this person,” he says in a phone call. “I didn’t really know that there was something bigger happening. But when you get asked such questions, you just stick to a safe position, which was that I just answered the questions based on the information in the article.”
Christiana Markou, the Cypriot lawyer who is leading a lawsuit against NSO-affiliated entities, was also covertly recorded by an operative for Black Cube. She says several of her comments were manipulated, with the video making it seem as if she said there would be no liability for NSO Group. What Markou actually told the spy, she says, was that there would be no direct liability for the spyware firm in her case, as it involves two Cypriot companies affiliated with NSO Group.
Markou says the report’s biggest manipulation was the suggestion that she had said the lawsuit was simply about damaging the reputation of NSO Group. “They didn’t play the whole of my sentence,” she says. “It was about raising awareness about privacy violations, as my clients are privacy and human rights activists.”
Markou says she intends to take legal action in several countries, including sending a cease and desist letter to Channel 12 for being videotaped without her knowledge. She also asked London’s Sheraton Hotel, where the meeting with the operative took place, to preserve their surveillance footage, and reported the meeting to London police as a privacy violation and meeting under false pretenses. The other targets intend to file a data access request to Black Cube, she says.
Hear an excerpt of John Scott-Railton’s conversation with a Black Cube-linked operative at a January meeting in New York City:
‘A disturbing new angle’
In a statement quoted by Channel 12 on Saturday, Black Cube said that its “policy is never to discuss its customers or its work with any third party, and Black Cube always acts in accordance with the law and in accordance with the opinions of the leading law firms in the world.”
Scott-Railton, the Citizen Lab researcher targeted by the spy operation, says the ongoing episode raised serious questions about the risks incurred by companies like Black Cube and NSO, as well as by investors like Francisco Partners.
“This entire affair shows that some are ready to cross ethical lines to target researchers and independent academic research groups,” he adds. “That sets a terrible precedent, and I think it should be embarrassing for all parties involved.”
A representative for Amnesty International, which was targeted by NSO Group’s software last year, echoes Scott-Railton’s concerns.
“These latest reports, if true, are a disturbing new angle to the danger NSO poses to human rights defenders and human rights globally,” Danna Ingleton, deputy director at Amnesty Tech, tells Fast Company. “We need more transparency into their corporate due diligence, and we must find ways to hold companies like NSO to account if they are involved in the surveillance and intimidation of human rights defenders.”