Serpentine Galleries head resigns over Israeli spyware firm ownership row
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Serpentine Galleries head resigns over Israeli spyware firm ownership row

Yana Peel stands down citing the 'misguided personal attacks on me and my family', after it emerged she co-owns a company being sued over its surveillance software

Yana Peel  (Wikipedia - Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship/ Source: 2018 Freedom of Expression Awards)
Yana Peel (Wikipedia - Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship/ Source: 2018 Freedom of Expression Awards)

The head of the Serpentine Galleries in London resigned on Tuesday after it emerged that she co-owns an Israeli firm being sued by human rights activists over its surveillance software.

Yana Peel stood down claiming she had been the victim of a “lobbying campaign” after she was revealed to up to half of investment fund Novalpina Capital, which this year bought a majority stake in the controversial Israeli company NSO Group.

The Israeli firm, which is valued at around £700 million, sells sophisticated surveillance spyware to governments but is being sued by activists and journalists who say the software is sold to repressive authoritarian regimes which use it internally to crush dissent and track critics.

Peel has portrayed herself as a free-speech defender and last year judged Index on Censorship’s human rights awards. She co-owns Novalpina with her husband Stephen and two others. The fund is subject to the laws of Luxembourg, a tax haven, and this week she said it was him that ran the fund, not her.

NSO’s software is used to hack into someone’s phone and access their communications and data, including text messages, contacts, GPS location, emails and browsing history. It can even hijack the user’s camera and microphone to record and film them in their surroundings.

Last month What’sApp took the unusual step of urging all users to install the most recent update after it emerged that a company – reported to be NSO Group – was exploiting a security flaw to hack someone’s phone using the app’s calling feature.

The sophistication of the software meant that the phone user did not even need to answer the call in order for their phone to be “taken over”. Moreover, digital records of the call ever having being made were automatically deleted from the phone.

Human rights groups, activists and surveillance experts say NSO Group licenses its powerful Pegasus software to states such as Saudi Arabia, where human rights abuses are well-documented. Israel’s ministry of defence has been asked to revoke the company’s export licences.

Mexican journalists have brought a legal case against the company in Israel, and UK-based lawyers supporting them are believed to have been targeted by spyware in recent months. The co-defendant is another Israeli company called Q Cyber Technologies.

Peel, whose part-ownership of NSO Group was only revealed in corporate records discovered last week, said she was stepping down as chief executive of the prestigious art gallery after “misguided personal attacks on me and my family”.

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