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Best for Britain and the Spyware Scandal

Best for Britain, the anti-Brexit pressure group which received criticism over skewed tactical voting guides, is linked to an explosive spyware scandal targeting journalists and activists resisting dictatorships.

‘Best for Britain,’ one of the largest anti-Brexit pressure groups, drew criticism last week for its tactical voting website which advocated votes for Lib Dem candidates even where the party had barely registered in recent elections.

The site, which claims to help voters to “use [their] vote to stop Brexit,” recommends candidates it says are best placed to “stop Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan to take away our rights, our NHS, and our future in Europe” in each constituency. However, it was described as “bogus” by a Labour Party spokesperson after users discovered the site recommended votes for Lib Dem candidates even in seats with sitting Labour MPs.

This furore might, however, be the least of Best for Britain’s worries. Company records examined by Tribune show that one of their most important figures is Stephen Peel, a multimillionaire former Tory supporter and Goldman Sachs executive. Peel founded Novalpina Capital, a private equity implicated in the explosive WhatsApp spyware scandal.

Peel’s Novalpina Capital owns one third of NSO Group, where he is also on the board. The Israeli spyware firm has been accused of helping governments hack into the messages of human rights activists and journalists. According to the New York Times, the spyware was discovered “on the phone of the wife of a murdered Mexican journalist and, last year, on the phone of a close confidant of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist whose murder was linked by United States intelligence services to the Saudi Arabian government.”

WhatsApp is so concerned about NSO Group’s activities that it is suing the company over its spyware programme Pegasus, which was responsible for the attacks. NSO insists it is not responsible for how governments use Pegasus – but, in a Washington Post op-ed, WhatsApp head Will Cathcart said the company had evidence of NSO’s direct involvement in the attacks.

Best for Britain was founded in 2017 by, among others, long-running Remain campaigner Gina Miller. However, she left the organisation some years ago. Since then it has made efforts to conceal the membership of its seven-person board. At one time Best for Britain had a link on their website to the board, but it was deleted earlier this year shortly after the organisation received a series of questions about its leadership.

The ‘About Us’ section now only refers to their two-person leadership team. However, Companies House records, which Best for Britain must file by law, show that Stephen Peel is a director and one of the organisation’s top funders. According to Best For Britain’s latest accounts – filed under its legal name ‘UK-EU Open Policy Limited’ – the company receives £3.4 million in donations per year. As well as being a director, Stephen Peel donated £350,000, or 10% of their entire income.

Although it omits reference to Peel, Best for Britain’s About Us section does include a statement of principles. In it, the organisation argues that “the UK and Europe share the same democratic values, which are threatened by authoritarian tendencies on Europe’s borders, in Russia, Turkey and the Middle East.”

But according to CitizenLab, the Canadian researchers who uncovered much of the details of the NSO spyware case, the company Peel is invested in are “equipping repressive governments with powerful tools to spy on those who hold them to account.” CitizenLab go on to say that “NSO Group’s surveillance technology has been turned against political dissidents, lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders.” They point to cases of spyware on activists’ phones both before and after Peel’s company bought NSO Group.

Amnesty International also questioned the NSO Group’s record. “Research has documented the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to target a wide swath of civil society,” it says, including “human rights defenders” in Mexico and leading Saudi dissidents abroad, such as Yahya Assiri, who has asylum in the UK, and satirist-activist Ghanem Al-Masarir.

Probably the most high profile case involving NSO Group and its Pegasus programme is the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi’s friends are suing NSO Group over allegations that Pegasus was used by Saudi intelligence to help track the dissident writer before they murdered him. It was reported that NSO Group sold Pegasus technology to Saudi Arabia for $55 million in 2017.

NSO Group dispute the allegations in the “strongest terms” and say they will “vigorously resist” the court cases. Peel’s company has argued that since Novalpina took over they have “a new human rights policy” and “contractual obligations requiring NSO’s customers to limit the use of the company’s products to the prevention and investigation of serious crimes, including terrorism, and to ensure that the products will not be used to violate human rights.” 

However, CitizenLab say they have “identified over 100 cases of abusive targeting of human rights defenders and journalists in at least 20 countries across the globe, ranging from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America that took place after Novalpina Capital acquired NSO Group and began an ongoing public relations campaign to promote the narrative that the new ownership would curb abuses.”

Peel’s role with NSO is likely to prove uncomfortable for Best for Britain. Novalpina’s assurances that it would crack down on NSO’s rogue activities weren’t enough to prevent his wife, Yana Peel, being embroiled in the scandal earlier this year. In June she was forced to resign from her positions running the Serpentine Gallery because of the Pegasus spyware scandal.

Best for Britain is far from Peel’s only political cause. In 2008 he gave the Tories £50,000 to help fund their fight against Gordon Brown, so his involvement with an organisation pushing anti-Labour messaging in the general election isn’t a shock. The same, however, can’t be said for revelations linking a prominent liberal campaign to a spyware scandal that has targeted those standing up against authoritarian regimes.

Tribune asked Best for Britain if Peel’s seat on their board was tenable. We also asked why they had removed the names of their directors from the Best for Britain website. We received no response.