Israeli spyware firm NSO hires Pillsbury amid fresh scrutiny

A man reads at a stand of the NSO Group Technologies at the annual European Police Congress in Berlin, Germany, February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

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  • Firm will advise on U.S. procurement regulations, compliance and other matters
  • Leading Pillsbury policy lawyers are on the contract, which shows hourly rates of between $650 and $1,250

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(Reuters) – Lawyers from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman will advise the surveillance firm NSO Group on business development, U.S. government procurement rules and corporate compliance policies, according to a newly disclosed contract that comes as the Israeli company faces new criticism over alleged human rights abuses tied to its technology.

San Francisco-based Pillsbury disclosed the NSO contract to the U.S. Justice Department on June 30 under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The law requires attorneys, consultants and others to publicly reveal certain relationships with foreign clients beyond traditional litigation matters.

Pillsbury’s six-month contract, the first FARA registration between a U.S. law firm and NSO, runs until December and was valued at $450,000. The firm disclosed attorney-fee rates for associates and partners ranging from $650 to $1,250 per hour.

The disclosures said the Pillsbury’s advisory work could include communication with the media and with the U.S. executive and legislative branches.

NSO has faced renewed allegations that government clients have abused the company’s spyware in actions targeting diplomats, lawyers, journalists and others.

The research group Forensic Architecture, working with Amnesty International and Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, posted a new investigation on July 3 that showed what it described as the global harm of NSO’s surveillance technology.

Representatives from Pillsbury did not immediately comment on Tuesday.

A spokesman for NSO said in a statement the company hoped its Pillsbury partnership would “further enhance the company’s activities and efforts to keep the world a safer place through the use of our technologies.”

The company disputed the new investigative report, calling the allegations “recycled claims.” NSO said it “investigates all credible claims of misuse, and takes appropriate action based on the results of its investigations.”

The Pillsbury team includes Gregory Laughlin, senior counsel in Washington and a former U.S. representative from Texas; Elizabeth Vella Moeller, a Washington partner who leads the firm’s public policy team; partners Brian Finch and Craig Saperstein; and San Francisco-based special counsel and political law group leader Emily Erlingsson.

Traditional court litigation generally is not required to be disclosed under the U.S. foreign-agent law.

In the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the Atlanta, Georgia-based law firm King & Spalding is defending NSO in a cyber-related suit brought by Facebook Inc-owned messaging service WhatsApp. O’Melveny & Myers represents Facebook. A lower court judge declined to grant immunity to NSO.

Pillsbury has also disclosed U.S. advocacy on behalf of the Ministry of Energy, Industry, and Mineral Resources of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo; Cayman Islands Ministry of Financial Services, Commerce & Environment; and the U.S. embassy of the Republic of Korea.

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Mike Scarcella