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.”