When union organizers passed a resolution this month calling for Oregon’s $100 billion state pension fund to divest from a fund that owns NSO Group, it highlighted the ways the Israeli company’s intrusive spyware has allegedly been used in the past to target union members.
“It may sound like a cliché, but an injury to one is an injury to all, and we strongly support that,” said Ira Erbs, a part-time professor at Portland Community College and member of the Oregon chapter of the American Federation. . teachers.
Erbs is part of a growing movement of union members in Oregon demanding greater transparency from Democratic Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read about how public employee retirement funds are invested.
Activists like Erbs have previously lobbied Read over pension fund investments in fossil fuels and in companies that run private prisons. Now they are focusing on the Oregon fund’s longstanding indirect investment in NSO, the maker of one of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance technologies.
An investigation of NSO by Project Pegasus, an international media consortium led by French nonprofit Forbidden Stories, reported last year that the cellphone numbers of dozens of Mexican teachers – part of a faction within the powerful Mexican Teachers Union – had been targeted for possible surveillance in 2016 by the Mexican government, at a time when the union was voicing objections to government reform proposals.
The teachers’ numbers were on a leaked list of more than 50,000 numbers believed to have been selected by NSO’s government customers around the world for possible surveillance.
The presence of an individual’s number on the list does not mean that the person has been permanently hacked, and NSO has denied that the list is linked to the company’s customers. A review of dozens of cellphones that were on the list by Amnesty International security researchers showed that a large portion of the cellphones showed evidence of being targeted or hacked by NSO’s spyware called Pegasus. When successfully deployed against a target, Pegasus can hack into any phone, intercept calls and messages, and can turn the phone into a remote listening device by controlling the phone recorder.
“We want to send a message to our treasurer that this is unacceptable, that we are not prepared to support this kind of behavior,” Erbs said.
Oregon retirees have been indirectly invested in NSO since 2014, when the then-Israeli startup was taken over by a fund controlled by Francisco Partners, an American company that had received tens of millions of dollars in investment from the Oregon retirement fund.
Three years later, Oregon invested $233 million in Novalpina Capital, a private equity firm that in 2019 acquired NSO from Francisco Partners.
The Oregon fund sought to distance itself from NSO. He repeatedly said in response to questions from the Guardian that the Oregon Treasury is a limited partner in private equity partnerships and therefore does not “control” the investment decisions of outside managers. He also said he was “deeply troubled by reports of developments regarding the NSO Group”.
But a Guardian report earlier this year found that a senior pension fund official named Michael Langdon had signaled his strong support for Novalpina’s takeover of NSO as early as 2018, months before the deal was finalized and announced. OK.
The fund appears to have given its tacit approval at a time when security researchers from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and Amnesty International were already publicly raising alarms about the company and how its hacking software was used by government clients to facilitate human rights abuses. .
NSO was blacklisted in the United States last year after the Biden administration said it had evidence the company had provided spyware to foreign governments who used the tools to “maliciously target people.” government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics and embassy workers”.
A spokesperson for Read, the gubernatorial candidate, released a statement in December supporting the administration’s decision, saying the treasurer supported sanctioning tech companies that “facilitate human rights abuses and abuses.” ‘oppression of journalists by selling technology to authoritarian regimes’.
A resolution backed by both the Oregon branch of the AFL-CIO, a union federation, and AFSCME, which represents thousands of state and local workers in Oregon, called for the ‘Immediate and complete’ divestment of state pension funds from the ONS proprietary fund once ‘suitable alternatives’ are identified. NSO was recently downgraded by Moody’s, the credit agency, to eight levels below investment grade, and is at “serious risk” of default on $500 million of debt, making it a ” unhealthy investment,” the resolution reads.
For Sravya Tadepalli, board member of Hindus for Human Rights and member of AFSCME, who was the first to raise the issue of the NSO, the resolution that was agreed goes back to a statement Read made earlier on controversial investments, how “politics” shouldn’t get in the way of fund management and protect retiree returns.
“What this resolution does is it essentially removes that argument. Because if all these unions are saying, ‘No, we care about overseas rights and that’s meaningful enough that we support divestment,’ that takes away the line, ‘politics shouldn’t affect the fund,'” a said Tadepalli.
A spokesperson for the pension fund did not respond to specific questions about the AFL-CIO resolution. NSO did not respond to a request for comment.