Cherie Blair's law firm is called Omnia Strategy
Cherie Blair’s role advising a security company accused of developing spyware is under fresh scrutiny after it was alleged to have helped snoop on dozens of journalists and activists.
Mrs Blair’s law firm, Omnia Strategy, serves as an ethical adviser to NSO Group, an Israeli firm accused of developing hacking software used by governments to target dissidents.
On Sunday, Amnesty International and investigative journalist group Forbidden Stories revealed a data leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers, including journalists and activists, which they claimed could be potential targets of its spying software.
NSO Group has denied the claims, calling the report “false” and its findings “misleading”. It says its technology is used to track down terrorists and criminals.
Activists accused Mrs Blair, a human rights QC, and other advisers to NSO Group of “whitewashing” and “paying lip service” to human rights. Mrs Blair set up her law firm after her husband Tony resigned as prime minister in 2007.
Amnesty claimed to have found traces of NSO’s spyware, called Pegasus, on the phones of dozens of individuals who had criticised states such as Saudi Arabia, Hungary and India.
The Israeli company develops so-called no click spyware – tools that can be delivered to a victim’s phone simply by a text message or call. Its hacking tools can be used to remotely monitor phones and access their files.
Amnesty said its tools had been seen to remotely compromise the latest iPhone 12 models and Apple’s iMessage service.
It was accused of having its technology used by Saudi Arabia to spy on the critic and former Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, something NSO has repeatedly denied.
NSO said of Amnesty’s report: “There can be no factual basis to suggest that a use of data somehow equates to surveillance.”
It added: “As NSO has previously stated, our technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
NSO Group | The WhatsApp hacking tool lawsuit
Campaigners have warned that advisers to NSO Group, such as Mrs Blair’s Omnia, were helping the company “whitewash” its reputation.
Despite the new claims, a spokesman for Mrs Blair referred to a June 30 statement in which she said she was “encouraged by [NSO Group’s] recent progress on human rights matters”.
“NSO Group’s commitment to implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is critically important for the company, the sector in which they operate, and our society," she said.
“I have been encouraged by the company’s recent progress on human rights matters, and its recognition that big challenges remain and can best be tackled collaboratively and through developing binding standards for the industry.”
NSO hired Mrs Blair’s law firm as “experienced human rights practitioners” to work with its compliance and media teams to “incorporate human rights considerations into NSO activities”. It name-checked Mrs Blair in its first transparency report in an effort to diffuse pressure over the use of its surveillance tools.
Asked about Mrs Blair’s role, Ron Deibert, director of Toronto University’s Citizen Lab, which has analysed the allegations against NSO, said: “The company and its roster of high-profile apologists appear unwilling to seriously address the problems at the root of this issue.”
Natalia Krapiva, a legal counsel at the digital non-profit Access Now, said: “NSO has a history of hiring expensive firms to make their business more palatable to the public and investors. It’s really time to put a stop to this whitewashing of abuses and paying lip service to human rights.”
On Monday, Amazon said it had shut down a number of accounts linked to NSO Group that used its technology infrastructure.