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London art gallery chief quits as husband's links to Israel spyware revealed

June 18, 2019 at 3:37 pm

Yana Peel, former CEO of Londons Serpentine Galleries [Wikimedia commons]

The head of a prestigious London art gallery has resigned over revelations of the ownership structure of NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used to target human rights activists and was linked to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yana Peel today stepped down from her position as CEO of London’s Serpentine Galleries, a role she has held since 2016. She took the decision to resign after UK newspaper the Guardian last week revealed the ownership structure of the NSO Group, a controversial Israeli spyware firm known to have sold military-grade surveillance equipment to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other authoritarian governments.

In March, a private equity firm managed by Peel’s husband, Stephen, bought a majority stake in the NSO Group. Yana is listed as an “indirect owner” of Novalpina Capital.

In a statement following her resignation, Peel said she has “decided [she is] better able to continue [her] work in supporting the arts, the advancement of human rights and freedom of expression by moving away from [her] current role [at Serpentine]”.

She continued: “In light of a concerted lobbying campaign against my husband’s recent investment, I have taken the decision to step down as CEO of the Serpentine Galleries. I am saddened to find myself in this position […] The work of the Serpentine […] cannot be allowed to be undermined by misguided personal attacks on me and my family. These attacks are based upon inaccurate media reports now subject to legal complaints.”

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NSO Group was thrust into the spotlight last year following the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. It was subsequently revealed that NSO Group’s “Pegasus” spyware – which can be used to remotely infect a target’s mobile phone and then relay back data accessed by the device – was used by Saudi Arabia to spy on a number of Khashoggi’s associates.

One such associate was Omar Abdulaziz, a Canada-based Saudi dissident whose phone was tapped using Pegasus software. A lawsuit accusing NSO Group of hacking Abdulaziz’s phone is currently ongoing, with the petition claiming that “in the months before [Khashoggi’s] killing [on 2 October 2018], the [Saudi] royal court had access to Mr. Khashoggi’s communications about opposition projects with Mr. Abdulaziz because of the spyware on Mr. Abdulaziz’s phone”.

The London-based lawyer who filed the court case has since been targeted using NSO software. In May, reports emerged that popular messaging service WhatsApp had been hacked by installing malicious surveillance software on to both iPhones and Android phones. The lawyer in question said he had grown suspicious when he began receiving “WhatsApp video calls from Swedish telephone numbers at odd hours,” leading him to alert the authorities about a potential breach.

Although NSO Group in January claimed its software was not used to spy on Khashoggi directly, the sale of its products to Saudi Arabia has been vehemently criticised by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, as well as US whistle-blower Edward Snowden who argued that, if NSO Group had refused to sell its technology to Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi would still be alive.

READ: Spyware developed in Israel used by Saudis to hack London-based dissident

Amnesty has been at the forefront of efforts to clamp down on the sale and use of NSO’s software, supporting the above legal action and appealing to Israel’s Ministry of Defence to revoke the group’s export license. The human rights organisation has also repeatedly contacted Novalpina Capital about its ownership of NSO, prompting the private equity firm to announce “a new framework” to “bring NSO Group in full alignment with UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”.

A statement issued last week claimed that Novalpina and NSO “are progressing well on the development of a new governance framework at NSO” and claimed the organisations will do “whatever necessary” to ensure the group’s technology is used “only for its intended lawful purpose – the prevention of harm to our fundamental human rights to life, liberty and security from acts of terrorism and serious crime”.

Novalpina gave itself 90 days to “establish at NSO a new benchmark for transparency and respect for human rights in full alignment with the UN Guiding Principles,” conceding this is “an ambitious goal wholly without precedent”.

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Note: This article was updated on 15.40 on 21 February 2020 to remove reference to clarify that Yana Peel does not own, whether directly or indirectly, any Novalpina Capital entity or any stake in NSO Group and only has small, indirect and passive interest in the fund. Following a legal complaint, the Guardian removed its article of 14 June 2019 and apologised to Peel.