Despite Sketchy Promises, Sketchy Software Companies Are Doing Business With Sketchy Governments

The marketplace for exploits and software of an ethically questionable nature is a controversial one, but something even I can concede has value. If third-party vendors are creating targeted surveillance methods, it means that the vast majority of us can continue to have secure and private systems without mandated “back doors”. It seems like an agreeable compromise so long as those vendors restrict their sales to governments and organizations with good human rights records.

NSO Group, creators of Pegasus spyware, seems to agree. Daniel Estrin, reporting last month at NPR:

NSO says it has 60 customers in 40 countries, all of them intelligence agencies, law enforcement bodies and militaries. It says in recent years, before the media reports, it blocked its software from five governmental agencies, including two in the past year, after finding evidence of misuse. The Washington Post reported the clients suspended include Saudi Arabia, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and some public agencies in Mexico.

Pegasus can have legitimate surveillance use, but it has great potential for abuse. NSO Group would like us to believe that it cares deeply about selling only to clients that will use the software to surveil possible terrorists and valuable criminal targets. So, how is that going?

Bill Marczak, et al., Citizen Lab:

We identified nine Bahraini activists whose iPhones were successfully hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware between June 2020 and February 2021. Some of the activists were hacked using two zero-click iMessage exploits: the 2020 KISMET exploit and a 2021 exploit that we call FORCEDENTRY.


At least four of the activists were hacked by LULU, a Pegasus operator that we attribute with high confidence to the government of Bahrain, a well-known abuser of spyware. One of the activists was hacked in 2020 several hours after they revealed during an interview that their phone was hacked with Pegasus in 2019.

As Citizen Lab catalogues, Bahrain’s record of human rights failures and internet censorship should have indicated to NSO Group that misuse of its software was all but guaranteed.

NSO Group is just one company offering software with dubious ethics. Remember Clearview? When Buzzfeed News reported last year that the company was expanding internationally, Hoan Ton-That, Clearview’s CEO, brushed aside human rights concerns:

“Clearview is focused on doing business in USA and Canada,” Ton-That said. “Many countries from around the world have expressed interest in Clearview.”

Later last year, Clearview went a step further and said it would terminate private contracts, and its Code of Conduct promises that it only works with law enforcement entities and that searches must be “authorized by a supervisor”. You can probably see where this is going.

Ryan Mac, Caroline Haskins, and Antonio Pequeño IV, Buzzfeed News:

Like a number of American law enforcement agencies, some international agencies told BuzzFeed News that they couldn’t discuss their use of Clearview. For instance, Brazil’s Public Ministry of Pernambuco, which is listed as having run more than 100 searches, said that it “does not provide information on matters of institutional security.”

But data reviewed by BuzzFeed News shows that individuals at nine Brazilian law enforcement agencies, including the country’s federal police, are listed as having used Clearview, cumulatively running more than 1,250 searches as of February 2020. All declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.


Documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News also show that Clearview had a fledgling presence in Middle Eastern countries known for repressive governments and human rights concerns. In Saudi Arabia, individuals at the Artificial Intelligence Center of Advanced Studies (also known as Thakaa) ran at least 10 searches with Clearview. In the United Arab Emirates, people associated with Mubadala Investment Company, a sovereign wealth fund in the capital of Abu Dhabi, ran more than 100 searches, according to internal data.

As noted, this data only covers up until February last year; perhaps the policies governing acceptable use and clientele were only implemented afterward. But it is alarming to think that a company which bills itself as the world’s best facial recognition provider ever felt comfortable enabling searches by regimes with poor human rights records, private organizations, and individuals in non-supervisory roles. It does jibe with Clearview’s apparent origin story, and that should be a giant warning flag.

These companies can make whatever ethical promises they want, but money talks louder. Unsurprisingly, when faced with a choice about whether to allow access to their software judiciously, they choose to gamble that nobody will find out.