Activist company

Ties to ‘harmful’ spyware firm spark criticism of Ottawa adviser on internet regulation

One of the federal government’s expert advisers on internet malfeasance is being criticized for his role as an adviser to a global spy technology firm.

Vivek Krishnamurthy, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, is one of 12 experts the Liberal government appointed this year to work on revamping Ottawa’s plan to regulate online harm – which includes a proposal to legislate in areas such as hate speech and terrorism.

As director of the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa, Mr. Krishnamurthy regularly comments on federal efforts to regulate the Internet.

But his past contract work at a law firm working for the NSO Group, the creator of the Pegasus phone spy software that undemocratic regimes have used to target journalists and political opponents, has led some of his peers academics and activists to declare that they would not. work more with him or CIPPIC.

Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which has made international headlines for its published research on the work of Pegasus, has obtained emails which he says show that Mr Krishnamurthy was hired in party to dig up information on the Citizen Lab. . Mr. Krishnamurthy is a former student and research assistant of Mr. Deibert.

“The Citizen Lab, which I lead, will no longer collaborate with Vivek or CIPPIC while they are in charge,” Deibert said in a statement to The Globe and Mail. In addition, Mr. Deibert said he did not think Mr. Krishnamurthy should advise the government on online harm after working for a company that Mr. Deibert called “one of the leading global providers of online mischief”.

The Guardian newspaper published a report last month detailing Mr Krishnamurthy’s work on behalf of the NSO in 2019 as the company – then acquired by an equity group called Novalpina Capital – sought to respond to reports from Citizen Lab on his activities.

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In a detailed written response to The Globe, Mr Krishnamurthy said he regretted working on behalf of NSO for law firm Foley Hoag for a period of five months in 2019, but said he would. had done thinking that the new ownership of the company was genuinely interested in reform. He also noted that it is common for companies with poor human rights records to hire lawyers and consultants for advice on how to improve.

Internal company emails which Mr Deibert obtained through UK data protection laws revealed discussions about how Mr Krishnamurthy should approach Mr Deibert. The Citizen Lab director pushed back the initial outreach in March 2019, after Mr Krishnamurthy explained he was working with Novalpina-owned NSO Group. Emails showed that three months later there was a corporate discussion about a new approach which included Mr Krishnamurthy inviting Mr Deibert over for a beer.

Mr Krishnamurthy then emailed Mr Deibert from a university account with another attempt to meet, writing: ‘You would have a drink with me as an alumnus, not as anything else !”

Mr Deibert, who also declined the invitation, told the Globe that Mr Krishnamurthy’s interactions with him were inappropriate and that his work on behalf of the ONS “should disqualify him from doing any public service work”.

In his statement to The Globe, Mr Krishnamurthy said his invitation to meet Mr Deibert for a beer was a sincere personal attempt to “clear the air”.

“He declined, and again, I respected his wishes. I continue to respect Ron and support his work at Citizen Lab,” he said. “I regret that the brief engagement of my former company with Novalpina has not had the intended effect of changing NSO’s behavior, and I hope that civil society groups like Citizen Lab will succeed in stopping the company’s extremely harmful activities.”

In 2021, the US Department of Commerce imposed trade restrictions on NSO Group, saying it “provides spyware to foreign governments that use this tool to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businessmen , activists, academics and embassy workers”.

The company responded at the time by saying that its tools fight crime and terrorism and that it is terminating its contract with government agencies that misuse its products.

Mr. Krishnamurthy said he was honored to be appointed to the expert advisory board, even though he criticized the federal government’s digital policy. He also provided a list of academic colleagues who would champion his work.

Among them, former justice minister and former rector of the University of Ottawa, Allan Rock, said that Mr. Krishnamurthy was a highly ethical person who acted appropriately in his capacity as a lawyer giving advice to a customer.

“I think the criticism is misplaced,” he said. “I regret the reaction of Citizen Lab. I think their reaction is not justified by the facts here, and it is wrong.

Ashley Michnowski, spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, said in a statement that the 12-person advisory committee had “a wide range of views.” The government statement did not directly refer to Mr Krishnamurthy.

Citizen Lab is not the only organization to distance itself from Mr. Krishnamurthy.

Digital rights organization Access Now, a Brooklyn-based global nonprofit that has worked on projects with Foley Hoag and the University of Ottawa’s CIPPIC, told The Globe it is reassessing these relationships.

“Access Now and CIPPIC’s advocacy work has focused on the growth of cloud centers in countries that consistently fail to protect human rights,” said Access Now’s general counsel. , Peter Micek. “We have no other joint projects planned, and we are reviewing our relationship with Vivek Krishnamurthy and CIPPIC in light of these revelations.”

Since its founding by Mr. Deibert more than 20 years ago, the Citizen Lab has received international recognition for its investigations exposing covert state surveillance against members of civil society.

For the past five years, Citizen Lab has focused on one particular type of spyware sold to governments. NSO Group’s Pegasus phone spy software can take control of a target’s phone and secretly relay voice calls, photos, SMS messages and location to anyone listening.

Citizen Lab has published reports indicating that NSO Group technology is being misused, particularly by states in the Middle East and Central America. In 2018, the group revealed that a Saudi dissident in Canada was being targeted by the spyware. More recently, Citizen Lab helped bring to light that the software targeted targets in Spain and Britain.

NSO Group did not respond to requests for comment this week.

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