Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re telling me that a for-profit company selling cyber-surveillance tools might end up selling their technology to bad actors? You’re telling me that spies can be unethical, and businesses care first and foremost about profits? You’re saying that technologies can be abused, especially when their creators and purchasers operate in the shadows? Unbelievable. Nobody knew that spycraft could be so complicated.
Yes, in an utterly predictable and extremely frustrating turn of events, investigative reporters have revealed that Pegasus, the signature spyware of the Israeli cyber-surveillance company NSO Group, has popped up on the devices of human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers targeted by authoritarian regimes worldwide. The stories about Pegasus are still coming out, but what we already know is damning. The late Mexican journalist Cecilia Pineda Birto; the wife of the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; British human rights campaigner David Haigh, who advocates for the release of Dubai’s Princess Latifa; and hundreds of other voices for the voiceless have had their texts, calls, locations, passwords, and more tapped by NSO Group’s shadowy list of clients.
The revelations have thrust NSO Group into an unwelcome spotlight, and thus resurfaced the Washington connections that likely helped it to do business worldwide unperturbed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, NSO Group is a client of SKDKnickerbocker, the public relations firm helmed by Clinton and Obama staff alumni. Fast Company first reported the connection in March 2019. SKDKnickerbocker claims they stopped representing the company that same year.
SKDKnickerbocker more or less specializes in running interference for deeply awful companies when a Democratic administration might be inclined to have them face consequences for the harms they cause. Past clients include Keystone XL pipeline developer TransCanada, anti-union charter schools, New York City landlords and real estate developers, Big Food companies trying to kill nutritional standards for children’s development, and of course, plenty of corporate tax-dodgers.
SKDKnickerbocker’s long-time ace in the hole is Anita Dunn, who just wrapped up a tour in the Biden administration and is headed back to the firm sometime this month. Our Eleanor Eagan previously exposed how Dunn abused loopholes in federal ethics standards to avoid having to file financial disclosure forms. This is a familiar script for Dunn. She also served in the first few months of the Obama administration, maintained close ties with her former colleagues when she returned to the firm, and used those connections to protect her clients for years to come. The same week she left the Obama White House, her husband Bob Bauer entered it as White House counsel. Bauer now serves on Biden’s commission to investigate Supreme Court expansion.