Francisco Partners

Sunday, 28 February 2021


Don Bowman, co-founder of Sandvine Inc., was always aware of the risks his company’s products posed. Sandvine makes what’s called deep packet inspection equipment, tools useful for spam filtering and internet network management that can also be used for surveillance and censorship. During Bowman’s two-decade tenure, Sandvine periodically turned down potential clients, including a telecommunications company partially owned by the Turkish government that wanted Sandvine to help it spy on email correspondence. “What that could lead to—we’re talking about journalists vanishing, whistleblowers put in jail,” says Bowman, who has since founded a security company called Agilicus in Kitchener, Ont. “We didn’t want to be part of that.”

Such concerns didn’t appear to take priority after Francisco Partners Management LLC, a private equity firm in San Francisco that primarily invests in technology companies, bought Sandvine in 2017. Francisco Partners replaced Sandvine’s entire executive team, including Bowman, and Sandvine then began selling to governments with troubling records on human rights, according to interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by Bloomberg News. Sandvine had previously dealt exclusively with the private sector, and its pursuit of government contracts, Bowman says, represented “a fundamental shift for the company.”

Sandvine doesn’t make its client list public and declined to comment for this story. But according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg, from 2018 to 2020 the company agreed to deals worth more than $100 million with governments in countries including Algeria, Belarus, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Singapore, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan. In its rankings of political freedom, the human-rights group Freedom House classified all these countries as either partially free or not free. Eritrea rated 206th out of 210 countries the group examined, worse even than North Korea.

Sandvine faced criticism after Bloomberg News disclosed how Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime had used its technology last summer to partially shut down the internet during nationwide protests over a disputed election. Sandvine canceled the deal after it became public, but advocacy groups have pressured federal and state officials to investigate Francisco Partners and Sandvine for due diligence and disclosure failures, and U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) has raised questions about whether it violated U.S. sanctions against Belarus. Activists held demonstrations in front of offices for both companies. No public investigations or charges have been brought to date.

Other companies affiliated with Francisco Partners have faced controversy over deals they’ve pursued with authoritarian regimes. These include internet-monitoring companies Blue Coat Systems and Procera Networks as well as NSO Group Technologies, which makes software to hack into phones and computers, according to reports from human-rights groups such as Amnesty International, Access Now, and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which tracks illegal hacking and surveillance.

A Francisco Partners spokesperson says Sandvine “allows the world’s major communications providers to offer a safe and efficient internet with security protocols to prevent websites promoting child pornography, malware, and other criminal activity,” adding that the firm was “deeply committed to ethical business practices, and we evaluate all of our investments through that lens.” The firm says business ethics committees at its portfolio companies have blocked more than $100 million in sales that would have been legally permissible. It denies that it violated sanctions.

The market for government surveillance technology is about $12 billion annually, according to Moody’s, and the estimates for the deep packet inspection market peg it at about one-quarter that size. Executives at Francisco Partners have kept their work largely out of the public eye and include no mention of this aspect of its operations in marketing materials. This account, based on interviews with current and former employees at the company and the businesses it’s financed, as well as internal documents and financial filings, provides new details about how Francisco Partners conducts business with some of the world’s most repressive governments.

In many cases the governments interested in monitoring and silencing their citizenry are U.S. allies, and there are few rules governing the technologies they use to do so. Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and director of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, says the Biden administration should create new export controls and other regulations.

Until that happens, there’s a market opportunity, says Jonathon Penney, a research fellow at Citizen Lab. “A lot of the abuses we’ve seen involving these technologies would not have been possible without the support of capital-rich and resource-rich private equity firms like Francisco Partners,” he says. “There’s a real gap in legal accountability, and there’s so much money in the sector that the incentives are just not there for companies to change the way they’re doing business.”

Exodus

Sunday, 15 March 2020


After successfully creating a health care app for doctors to view medical records, Diego Fasano, an Italian entrepreneur, got some well-timed advice from a police officer friend: Go into the surveillance business because law enforcement desperately needs technological help.

In 2014, he founded a company that creates surveillance technology, including powerful spyware for police and intelligence agencies, at a time when easy-to-use encrypted chat apps such as WhatsApp and Signal were making it possible for criminal suspects to protect phone calls and data from government scrutiny.

The concept behind the company’s product was simple: With the help of Italy’s telecom companies, suspects would be duped into downloading a harmless-seeming app, ostensibly to fix network errors on their phone. The app would also allow Fasano’s company, eSurv, to give law enforcement access to a device’s microphone, camera, stored files and encrypted messages.

Fasano christened the spyware “Exodus.”

“I started to go to all the Italian prosecutors’ offices to sell it,” explained Fasano, a 46-year-old with short, dark-brown hair and graying stubble. “The software was good. And within three years, it was used across Italy. In Rome, Naples, Milan.”

Even the country’s foreign intelligence agency, L’Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Esterna, came calling for Exodus’s services, Fasano said.

But Fasano’s success was short lived, done in by a technical glitch that alerted investigators that something could be amiss. They followed a digital trail between Italy and the U.S. before unearthing a stunning discovery.

Authorities found that eSurv employees allegedly used the company’s spyware to illegally hack the phones of hundreds of innocent Italians—playing back phone conversations of secretly recorded calls aloud in the office, according to legal documents. The company also struck a deal with a company with alleged links to the Mafia, authorities said.

The discovery prompted a criminal inquiry involving four Italian prosecutor’s offices. Fasano and another eSurv executive, Salvatore Ansani, were charged with fraud, unauthorized access to a computer system, illicit interception and illicit data processing.

Already, the unfolding story of eSurv has renewed questions about the growing use of spyware. It has also brought attention to the largely unregulated companies that develop the spyware technology, which is capable of hacking into a device that nearly everyone carries in a pocket or purse, often storing their most sensitive information.

The demand for such technology has been driven in part by the rise in popularity of encrypted mobile phone apps and the reality that it is getting harder for law enforcement to glean evidence without the assistance of Silicon Valley giants such as Apple Inc., which is currently at loggerheads with the FBI over access to an iPhone used by an accused terrorist.

In recent years, spyware developers such as Israel’s NSO Group and Italy’s Hacking Team have been criticized for selling their products to repressive governments, which have used the technology to, among other things, track activists and journalists. (Both companies have said they sell their equipment to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to fight crime and terrorism.)

What makes the allegations against eSurv so astounding is that, if true, the company became involved in the spying itself—and did so right in the heart of Europe.

Giovanni Melillo, the chief prosecutor in Naples who is overseeing the case, has worked on some of the country’s highest-profile investigations, from the feared Camorra organized crime group to international money laundering and drug trafficking schemes. But he said the allegations against eSurv are unusual, even for a veteran prosecutor like him.

“I think that no prosecutors in Western countries have ever worked on a case like this,” Melillo said in a recent interview at his Naples office. This story is based on interviews with Italian authorities and a review of 170 pages of documents outlining the evidence collected, much of it never before reported.

Dragonfly

Friday, 1 February 2019


The secrecy surrounding the work was unheard of at Google. It was not unusual for planned new products to be closely guarded ahead of launch. But this time was different. The objective, code-named Dragonfly, was to build a search engine for China that would censor broad categories of information about human rights, democracy, and peaceful protest.

In February 2017, during one of the first group meetings about Dragonfly at Google’s Mountain View headquarters in California, some of those present were left stunned by what they heard. Senior executives disclosed that the search system’s infrastructure would be reliant upon a Chinese partner company with data centers likely in Beijing or Shanghai.

Locating core parts of the search system on the Chinese mainland meant that people’s search records would be easily accessible to China’s authoritarian government, which has broad surveillance powers that it routinely deploys to target activists, journalists, and political opponents.

Yonatan Zunger, then a 14-year veteran of Google and one of the leading engineers at the company, was among a small group who had been asked to work on Dragonfly. He was present at some of the early meetings and said he pointed out to executives managing the project that Chinese people could be at risk of interrogation or detention if they were found to have used Google to seek out information banned by the government.

Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of operations in China and one of the key architects of Dragonfly, did not view Zunger’s concerns as significant enough to merit a change of course, according to four people who worked on the project. Beaumont and other executives then shut out members of the company’s security and privacy team from key meetings about the search engine, the four people said, and tried to sideline a privacy review of the plan that sought to address potential human rights abuses.

Zunger — who left his position at Google last year — is one of the four people who spoke to The Intercept for this story. He is the first person with direct involvement in Dragonfly to go on the record about the project. The other three who spoke to The Intercept are still employed by Google and agreed to share information on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Their accounts provide extraordinary insight into how Google bosses worked to suppress employee criticism of the censored search engine and reveal deep fractures inside the company over the China plan dating back almost two years.

Google’s leadership considered Dragonfly so sensitive that they would often communicate only verbally about it and would not take written notes during high-level meetings to reduce the paper trail, two sources said. Only a few hundred of Google’s 88,000 workforce were briefed about the censorship plan. Some engineers and other staff who were informed about the project were told that they risked losing their jobs if they dared to discuss it with colleagues who were themselves not working on Dragonfly.

“They [leadership] were determined to prevent leaks about Dragonfly from spreading through the company,” said a current Google employee with knowledge of the project. “Their biggest fear was that internal opposition would slow our operations.”

UK's Far Right

Thursday, 31 January 2019


The town of Banff on the northeastern coast of Scotland is a peaceful place, with just 4,000 residents and a picturesque bay that flows into the open sea. Fifty miles from the nearest big city, the air is fresh and the pace of life is slow. But for one young man, the town’s seaside location offered no contentment. He was stockpiling weapons and planning an act of terrorism.

Connor Ward lived in a gray, semi-detached apartment building a short walk from Banff’s marina, where dozens of small boats are docked and fishermen depart each day on a hunt for mackerel or sea trout. Inside his home, 25-year-old Ward was plugged into a different kind of world. He was reading neo-Nazi propaganda on the internet about an imminent race war.

Ward began preparing for the conflict. He purchased knives, swastika flags, knuckle-dusters, batons, a stun gun, and a cellphone signal jammer. He obtained deactivated bullets and scoured Google for information about how to reactivate them. From his Banff home, he purchased hundreds of steel ball bearings and researched bomb-making methods. He wrote a note addressed to Muslims that stated: “You will all soon suffer your demise.” Then he compiled a map showing the locations of mosques in the nearest city – Aberdeen – that he appeared intent on attacking.

In April, a judge sentenced Ward to life in prison after concluding that he had been planning a “catastrophic” terrorist attack and was “deeply committed to neo-Nazi ideology.” During his week-long trial in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, it emerged that police had uncovered his plot by chance, after receiving a tip that he was trying to import weapons from the United States. Officers searched his home – and the home of his mother – and discovered his large armory, as well as a stash of 131 documents about Nazism, terrorism, and manufacturing explosives.

Ward is just one individual, but his actions reflect a broader trend. British authorities say they are currently facing a growing terrorist threat from right-wing extremists, whose numbers have increased in recent years. Rooted in the notion that white European people are facing extinction, the extremists’ ideas have gained currency following a spate of Islamist attacks in Europe and a refugee crisis that has seen millions of migrants travel to the continent from war-torn Afghanistan and Syria.

In Austria, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, Sweden, Hungary, and the Netherlands, far-right ideas have also surged in popularity. The same is true in the United States, where Donald Trump’s presidency has energized white supremacists. Far-right politicians and activists have successfully tapped into concerns about economic uncertainty, unemployment, and globalization. But they have built most of their support base around the issues of immigration and terrorism.

In June 2016, an act of brutal violence highlighted the burgeoning danger in the United Kingdom. In broad daylight in a small village in the north of England, 52-year-old white supremacist Thomas Mair pulled out a homemade rifle and shot dead Jo Cox, a member of Parliament. Mair saw Cox as a “traitor” to white people due to her pro-immigration politics. Six months later, for the first time in U.K. history, a far-right group was banned as a terrorist organization, alongside the likes of Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab. Since then, the problem has continued to spiral.

British police say they have thwarted four far-right terrorist plots in the last year. In a speech in London in late February, the U.K.’s counter-terrorism police chief, Mark Rowley, cautioned that far-right groups were “reaching into our communities through sophisticated propaganda and subversive strategies, creating and exploiting vulnerabilities that can ultimately lead to acts of violence and terrorism.” Police were monitoring far-right extremists among a group of some 3,000 “subjects of interest,” Rowley said, adding: “The threat is considerable at this time.”

To Syria and Back

Saturday, 16 September 2017


It was a quiet night until the bombs began crashing out of the sky. Only a few minutes earlier, on the roof of a gray, single-story building not far from the city of Manbij in northern Syria, Josh Walker had been peacefully sleeping. Now the walls were collapsing beneath him, he was surrounded by fire, and his friends were dead.

Walker, a 26-year-old university student from Wales in the United Kingdom, was in Syria volunteering with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish-led militia that has been a leading force in the ground battle against the Islamic State. He had made the long journey to Syria after flying out of a London airport on a one-way ticket to Istanbul, appalled by the Islamic State’s brutal fascism and inspired by the YPG’s democratic socialist ideals.

Over the course of six months last year, Walker learned to speak Kurdish and shoot AK-47 assault rifles. He trained and fought alongside militia units made up of Kurds, Arabs, and young American, Canadian, and European volunteers. He faced Islamic State suicide bombers in battle and helped the YPG as it advanced toward Raqqa, the capital of the extremist group’s self-declared “caliphate.”

In late December, Walker returned to London. There was no welcome home party waiting to greet him. Instead, there were three police officers at the airport who swiftly arrested him. The officers took him into custody, interrogated him, searched his apartment, and confiscated his laptop and notebooks. After risking his life to fight against the Islamic State, Walker was charged under British counterterrorism laws — not directly because of his activities in Syria, but because the police had found in a drawer under his bed a partial copy of the infamous “Anarchist Cookbook,” a DIY explosives guide published in 1971 that has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide.

The case against Walker is highly unusual. He is the first anti-Islamic State fighter to be prosecuted by British authorities under terrorism laws after returning to the U.K., and he appears to be the only person in the country who has ever faced a terror charge merely for owning extracts of the “Anarchist Cookbook.” The authorities have not alleged that he was involved in any kind of terror plot; rather, they claim that because he obtained parts of the “Cookbook” — which is freely available in its entirety on the internet — he collected information “of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

Walker is due to go to trial in October, where in the worst-case scenario he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. Until then, he is free on bail, living with his mother and working part time as a kitchen porter in a restaurant. In an interview with The Intercept, he talked in-depth about his experiences in Syria and shared stories about the harrowing scenes he witnessed on the front line, which have profoundly affected his life. He also discussed for the first time the British government’s charges against him, which have not previously been publicized due to court-ordered reporting restrictions that have prevented news organizations in the U.K. from disclosing information about the background of his case. A judge lifted the restrictions late last month.

**

The sun is beating down on a hot summer’s day in Bristol, the largest city in southwest England, with a population of about 449,000. Outside a derelict former electronics store on a busy residential street in the St. Werburgh’s area of the city, Josh Walker is waiting. He is thin, about 5 foot 9 with a thick head of wavy, dark brown hair, wearing a faded green T-shirt, black trousers, and sneakers, and carrying a white plastic bag. We walk to a nearby park, where Walker pulls out two cans of cold beer from his bag, lights a cigarette, and begins explaining how he wound up on a journey to fight the Islamic State in Syria.

After leaving high school at age 18 in 2009, Walker had a variety of temporary jobs — he worked in construction, in gardening, and in an office as a volunteer for a politician who would later become the mayor of Bristol. In 2014, he decided to enroll at a university in Aberystwyth in Wales, about 130 miles west of Bristol, and he began studying for a degree in international politics and strategic studies.

As an avid follower of global affairs, Walker had been keeping a close eye on the fallout from the Arab Spring — the democratic uprisings that in late 2010 spread across the Middle East and North Africa. By 2016, the major unrest in most of the countries — like Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt — had largely petered out. In Syria, however, the demonstrations evolved into a full-blown civil war and led to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

What began as protests against the tyrannical leadership of Bashar al-Assad morphed into something far more complex, with a multitude of warring militias fighting one another to gain control of territory across the country. Islamist extremists were quick to capitalize on the chaos. The Islamic State group, which had previously been active primarily in Iraq, entered into the fray and took control of large swaths of Syria through 2013 and 2014, imposing strict Islamic rules and draconian punishments for anyone who disobeyed.

At university, Walker had watched it all unfold and discussed the events with his friends and professors. But he was not content to view the crisis on television as a passive observer. He wanted to help.

“I had enough of talking about history while it was being made,” he recalls. “I couldn’t just let it play out without being involved somehow and without seeing it for myself.”

So he hatched a secret plan to travel to Syria.

Inside Menwith Hill

Sunday, 23 October 2016


The narrow roads are quiet and winding, surrounded by rolling green fields and few visible signs of life beyond the occasional herd of sheep. But on the horizon, massive white golf ball-like domes protrude from the earth, protected behind a perimeter fence that is topped with piercing razor wire. Here, in the heart of the tranquil English countryside, is the National Security Agency’s largest overseas spying base.

Once known only by the code name Field Station 8613, the secret base — now called Menwith Hill Station — is located about nine miles west of the small town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire. Originally used to monitor Soviet communications through the Cold War, its focus has since dramatically shifted, and today it is a vital part of the NSA’s sprawling global surveillance network.

For years, journalists and researchers have speculated about what really goes on inside Menwith Hill, while human rights groups and some politicians have campaigned for more transparency about its activities. Yet the British government has steadfastly refused to comment, citing a longstanding policy not to discuss matters related to national security.

Now, however, top-secret documents obtained by The Intercept offer an unprecedented glimpse behind Menwith Hill’s razor wire fence. The files reveal for the first time how the NSA has used the British base to aid “a significant number of capture-kill operations” across the Middle East and North Africa, fueled by powerful eavesdropping technology that can harvest data from more than 300 million emails and phone calls a day.

Over the past decade, the documents show, the NSA has pioneered groundbreaking new spying programs at Menwith Hill to pinpoint the locations of suspected terrorists accessing the internet in remote parts of the world. The programs — with names such as GHOSTHUNTER and GHOSTWOLF — have provided support for conventional British and American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they have also aided covert missions in countries where the U.S. has not declared war. NSA employees at Menwith Hill have collaborated on a project to help “eliminate” terrorism targets in Yemen, for example, where the U.S. has waged a controversial drone bombing campaign that has resulted in dozens of civilian deaths.

The disclosures about Menwith Hill raise new questions about the extent of British complicity in U.S. drone strikes and other so-called targeted killing missions, which may in some cases have violated international laws or constituted war crimes. Successive U.K. governments have publicly stated that all activities at the base are carried out with the “full knowledge and consent” of British officials.

The revelations are “yet another example of the unacceptable level of secrecy that surrounds U.K. involvement in the U.S. ‘targeted killing’ program,” Kat Craig, legal director of London-based human rights group Reprieve, told The Intercept.

“It is now imperative that the prime minister comes clean about U.K. involvement in targeted killing,” Craig said, “to ensure that British personnel and resources are not implicated in illegal and immoral activities.”

Objective Peckham

Saturday, 30 January 2016

As he walked through the busy streets of London, Bilal el-Berjawi was glancing over his shoulder. Everywhere he went, he suspected he was being followed. Within a few years — 4,000 miles away in remote Somalia — he would be dead, killed by a secret U.S. drone strike.

A small and stocky British-Lebanese citizen with a head of thick dark hair, Berjawi had grown up much like any other young boy in the United Kingdom’s capital city, attending school during the day and playing soccer with friends in his free time. But by his early 20s he was leading no ordinary life. He was suspected of having cultivated ties with senior al Qaeda militants in East Africa, his British citizenship was abruptly revoked, and he was placed on a U.S. kill list.

In January 2012, Berjawi met his sudden end, about 10 miles northwest of Mogadishu, when a missile crashed into his white car and blasted it beyond recognition.

At the time of Berjawi’s death, the Associated Press reported that the missile strike targeting him had been carried out by a drone, citing an anonymous U.S. official. The Economist criticized the secrecy surrounding the attack and questioned whether it had amounted to a “very British execution.”

Now, a classified U.S. document obtained by The Intercept shines new light on the circumstances surrounding Berjawi’s death. It reveals that the U.S. government was monitoring him for at least five years as he traveled between London and Somalia; that he was targeted by a covert special operations unit running a fleet of more than two dozen drones, fighter jets, and other aircraft out of East Africa; and that cellphone surveillance facilitated the strike that killed him.

The document, a case study included in a secret 2013 report by the Pentagon’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force, does not mention Berjawi by name, instead referring to a target code-named “Objective Peckham.” But it contains enough specific details about the target’s movements and the time and place of the attack that killed him to confirm his identity beyond doubt.

The Intercept has pieced together the final years of Berjawi’s life based on the Pentagon case study, public records, interviews with individuals who knew him, and a transcript of a long conversation Berjawi had in April 2009 with members of Cage, a London-based rights group, in which he discussed his encounters with security agencies in the U.K. and Kenya.

The story of Berjawi’s life and death raises new questions about the British government’s role in the targeted assassination of its own citizens — also providing unique insight into covert U.S. military actions in the Horn of Africa and their impact on al Qaeda and its affiliate in the region, al Shabaab.