Public investors in the private equity firm that owns a majority stake in the Israeli spyware company NSO Group are in talks to transfer management of that fund to Berkeley Research Group, a US consulting firm.
A person familiar with the matter told the Guardian the talks, which are at an early stage, followed an internal dispute between the co-founders of Novalpina Capital, whose fund took over NSO Group in 2019.
NSO Group has been at the centre of a massive surveillance scandal following the publication of the Pegasus project, an investigation into NSO by 17 media organisations. At the heart of the investigation was a leak of tens of thousands of phone numbers of individuals – including journalists, activists, lawyers, and heads of state – who are believed to have been listed as people of interest for possible surveillance by NSO’s government clients.
The publication of the investigation by the Guardian and other media organisations came as the three co-founders of Novalpina were already embroiled in a long-running dispute over the future of the fund.
This week, Sky News and the Financial Times reported that Novalpina was stripped of control of its own fund as a result of the internal dispute, leading the fund’s outside investors to seize control.
The intervention left ownership of NSO and an Estonian gambling company called Olympic Entertainment Group, as well as other assets, hanging in the balance.
The FT reported that the fund’s outside investors, including public pension funds in the US and UK, had until 6 August to decide whether to liquidate the fund with a fire sale of assets or appoint a third party to take control of it.
A person close to the matter told the Guardian the fund’s largest investor, the Oregon public pension fund, was leading a push to transfer the management of the Novalpina fund to US-based BRG.
Novalpina declined to comment. NSO declined to comment. BRG did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The deal has not yet been finalised. The Israeli government, which has close oversight over NSO and the export of its surveillance technology, would likely have a say over the transfer of management of the fund that owns NSO to another firm.
According to is website, BRG is a global consulting firm that “helps organisations advance in three key areas”: disputes and investigations, corporate finance, and performance improvement.
If the deal proceeds, the California-based company would take over the fund that owns NSO at a difficult time for the Israeli company. The French government has called for an investigation into allegations that NSO clients listed key government officials, including most of Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet, as persons of interest. In the US, a senior Biden administration official involved in national security has also raised concerns about the Pegusus project revelations to an Israeli official.
The Pegasus project was organised by Forbidden Stories, a French media organisation.
Forensic analysis of dozens of phones by Amnesty International’s Security lab, a technical partner of the Pegasus project, found that many of the phones analysed and included on the leaked list had either been infected by NSO’s spyware, called Pegasus, or that there had been attempted infections.
When NSO’s Pegasus spyware infects a phone, government clients who use it can gain access to an individual’s phone conversations, messages, photos and location, as well as turn the phone into a portable listening device by manipulating its recorder.
The leak contains a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that are believed to have been identified as those of people of interest by NSO clients since 2016.
The appearance of a number on the leaked list does not mean it was subject to an attempted or successful hack. NSO said President Macron was not a “target” of any of its customers, meaning the company denies there was any attempted or successful Pegasus infection of his phone.
NSO has also said the data has “no relevance” to the company, and has rejected the reporting by the Pegasus project as “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”. It denied that the leaked data represented those targeted for surveillance by the Pegasus software. NSO has called the 50,000 number exaggerated and said it was too large to represent individuals targeted by Pegasus.