Is there an NSO connection with the UIDAI Aadhaar? It appears so. The Economic Times reports that investigations show that the company that backed Israeli cyber technology company NSO Group has an ‘India connection’. Francisco Partners invested in and later acquired CrossMatch, a certified supplier of biometric devices according to its website. In an August 2018 press release highlighting sales of its ‘U.are.U’ and ‘TouchChip’ line of “readers, modules and sensors” exceeding 750,000 units, the company said, “CrossMatch has a long history of providing high-performing biometric enrolment and verification devices in support of Aadhaar”.CrossMatch, according to media reports, received its certificate of approval from the Indian government in 2011. The newspaper reports that it had also tried to reach out to the UIDAI spokesperson, with specific queries around the nature of relationship between CrossMatch and the government agency. At the time of going to press, UIDAI was yet to respond.
Over the past weekend after the Whatsapp Snoop Scam broke sharp questions are being asked, not the least of which being, who benefits most from such sinister surveillance? The government, of course.Who would want the phone records/activity of Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group and Bhima Koregaon case accused Sudha Bharadwaj’s lawyer; Advocate Nihalsingh Rathod, who heads the Human Rights Law Network in Nagpur, and is a lawyer of accused Surendra Gadling in the same case; Bela Bhatia, Adivasi rights activist from Chhattisgarh; Anand Teltumbde, academic and writer on Dalit issues, also an accused in the same case; Ankit Grewal, who represented Sudha Bharadwaj; and several other activists and journalists?
Now there is more. ET reports that the lawsuit filed by Facebook-owned WhatsApp against Israeli cyber technology company NSO Group has revealed not just this surveillance of lawyers, journalists and activists but also a questionable role played by private equity funds in the growth of the industry that often function in a grey zone.
This is how it works: NSO cofounders Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie did a classic management buyout of the company from San Francisco-based PE firm Francisco Partners using the financial muscle of London-based Novalpina Capital for $1 billion. Francisco Partners made about eight times the $120 million it paid to buy the company five years before. Although it had announced the sale on February 14, 2019, in a press release, that communication is no longer visible on its website. It is, however, part of the documents in the WhatsApp suit against NSO filed in a California court October 29 for allegedly hacking its servers and systems.
Francisco Partners was co-founded in 1999 by former TPG Capital principal Dipanjan ‘DJ’ Deb along with David Stanton, another senior TPG executive, who left the company in 2005 as managing partner, and others. Francisco Partners is largely said to be technology-focused, with a penchant for surveillance technology companies in the growth stage. According to those who know the company, Francisco Partners “typically buys promising companies for cheap and helps them grow, before aiming for a substantial return”.
Biometric Service Provider CrossMatch
The company, according to persons ET spoke to, also “actively solicits clients for their investee companies”. To be sure, this is not unusual among private equity firms. Novalpina, the PE firm which helped acquire the NSO Group, on the other hand, buys companies with “proven track records”.
On Friday, ET reached out to Dipanjan Deb and his assistant with questions. The evasive response by the company that tells the full story may be read here.