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Sen. Wyden says Oregon should divest from spyware company

December 15, 2021 GMT

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden said Wednesday that the Oregon state employees pension fund should drop its investment in NSO Group, whose smartphone-hacking tool has targeted human rights monitors, journalists, politicians and others.

The Oregon Democrat’s comments to The Associated Press came as he and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, called on the Biden Administration to sanction NSO Group and three other “mercenary hacking corporations” under the Global Magnitsky Act, for enabling human rights violations by authoritarian regimes.

The state of Oregon became a stakeholder in a company that has been reviled by human rights groups, journalists and the U.S. government — which last month placed NSO Group on its trade blacklist — when in 2017 it invested $233 million in a private equity firm. That firm then acquired a majority share of NSO Group.

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“Oregon’s pension fund should not support companies like NSO, which the Biden Administration recently confirmed has enabled authoritarian regimes to target journalists and human rights advocates,” said Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

He added when the Trump administration issued human rights sanctions against several Chinese technology companies, it allowed U.S. investors to drop the investments.

The Oregon State Treasury said it had no immediate comment on Wyden’s call for divestment.

John Russell, the chairman of the Oregon Investment Council, which oversees the investment and allocation of all state of Oregon trust funds, said last week that divesting from fossil fuels and other questionable sectors goes beyond the council’s mandate and would turn the council into “an activist body.”

However, he added if the Legislature wants to change the statutes that the council operates under or advise the council, its members would be “open to that.”

NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware enables a client to infiltrate a target’s smartphone and see emails, texts, photos and to activate its microphone and camera. Among those targeted have been Amnesty International human rights monitors, journalists, politicians and the fiancee of slain Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“These surveillance companies do depend on the U.S. financial system and U.S.-based investors, particularly when they eventually wish to raise billions by listing on the stock market. To meaningfully punish them and send a clear signal to the surveillance technology industry, the U.S. government should deploy financial sanctions” Wyden and Schiff said in their letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Sixteen other members of Congress also signed the letter.

In response to the call for sanctions, NSO Group, an Israeli company, insisted it has “extensive human rights and compliance programs.

“We have been closely regulated by the Israeli government, which means that there is a long list of prohibited countries and that we only sell to governments authorized by the State of Israel, for the sole purpose of preventing terror and crime,” NSO Group said in a statement.

The Magnitsky Act gives the president the authority to sanction individuals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.