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Illustration of a dove carrying a mobile phone glowing menacingly.

A controversial Israeli military and law enforcement contractor that sells mobile phone spyware to governments is announcing a broad range of human rights protections after years of criticism.

The big picture: The Israel-based NSO Group has been accused of selling its Pegasus spyware to authoritarian governments, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Mexico used Pegasus to spy on the phones of inappropriate targets, including government officials and others who backed a tax on soda.

Background: NSO was purchased in February by Novapina Capital, a European private equity firm, which promised to make the company more transparent and to improve its human rights record.

  • According to a spokesperson for the company, NSO has terminated 3 contracts in the past for violating its human rights policies.
  • But the company has been saddled with negative publicity for years. Just days before the Novapina purchase, allegations came to light that NSO had sent human operatives to spy on lawyers, civil society groups and a journalist that tracked the group.

The new human rights policy includes:

  • Commitments to align business policies with the International Bill of Human Rights, the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
  • Promises to research potential clients and decline to sell to those with too many red flags.
  • An external whistleblower program to identify misuse, providing a formal mechanism to contact the firm.
  • A promise to engage with civil society groups.

Between the lines: NSO had revenue of $250 million in 2018 but has had trouble obtaining investment commensurate with its revenue, according to Forbes, with potential investors worried about a reputational hit for funding a company with such a controversial profile.

  • “At a certain point, hiding behind obscurity and small size isn’t good for future growth,” said Andy Grotto, a former member of the National Security Council for presidents Trump and Obama who handled issues relating to commercial surveillance software. “This might open them up to new customers. This doesn’t stop another firm to taking over the sketchier sales."

Yes, but: The policy changes aren't likely to satisfy NSO's critics.

  • NSO held its plan close to the vest before the announcement, and civil society groups have not been able to see the plan in full.
  • But John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which has done much of the research on NSO’s alleged human rights abuses, questions any plan that relies on victims to report misuse of the stealthy Pegasus.
  • “If they don’t have a mechanism of looking over government’s shoulders, I don’t see how this has any teeth,” he said.

Go deeper

1 hour ago - World

U.S. will give Russians written response to NATO demands, Blinken says

Blinken and Lavrov shake hands in Geneva. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed after a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Friday that the U.S. will provide written answers to Russia's security demands next week.

Why it matters: Russia claims to be waiting for "concrete answers" to its demands that NATO rule out further expansion and roll back its presence in eastern Europe before deciding its next steps on Ukraine. But the U.S. and NATO have called those proposals "non-starters," and Friday's meeting offered no breakthroughs, so it's unclear how written answers might change the equation.

More surprises await scientists at Antarctica's "Doomsday Glacier"

Cliffs along the edge of the Thwaites Ice Shelf in West Antarctica. Photo: James Yungel/NASA

Researchers like David Holland, an atmospheric scientist at New York University, are in a race to understand the fate of a massive glacier in West Antarctica that has earned a disquieting nickname: "The Doomsday Glacier."

Why it matters: Studies show the Thwaites Glacier (its official name) could already be on an irreversible course to melt during the next several decades to centuries, freeing up enough inland ice to raise global sea levels by at least several feet.

Updated 4 hours ago - Health

The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Omicron's blitz around the world has underscored the need for a new arsenal of COVID vaccines and therapeutics, experts say — and that may require an effort akin to Operation Warp Speed 2.0.

Why it matters: The virus will continue to evolve, potentially in a way that further escapes vaccine protection, and the best way to prevent more global disruptions to everyday life is to have tools ready to combat whatever comes next.