In spite of her reputation as a vocal champion for human rights, the Guardian reported on Friday that Yana Peel, the Chief Executive of Serpentine Galleries in London, has a stake in a cyberweapons company whose technology has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to crack down on political dissidents.
According to corporate records in the United States and Luxemburg, Peel is a major shareholder of an equity firm, Novalpina Capital, which owns the $1 billion Israeli cyberintelligence company NSO Group.
NSO has been widely condemned by human rights groups for its ties with anti-democratic regimes and is subject to several ongoing lawsuits over its activity, the Guardian reported. An Amnesty International report from August 2018 accused the company of licensing its Pegasus software to the government of Saudi Arabia, which used it to hack and monitor mobile devices belonging to activists. Amnesty also reported that the spyware was allegedly used against one of its staff members. In a statement released in May, NSO promised to investigate any “credible allegations of misuse” of its technology, adding that the software “is solely operated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”
In a separate case, a lawsuit filed against NSO in 2018 claims that company’s Pegasus software was allegedly used by the Saudi government to intercept the calls of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was gruesomely murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Earlier in 2019, NSO was taken over by Novalpina Capital, a London-based private equity firm founded by Peel’s husband, Stephen. Novalpina Capital is the majority owner of NSO’s shares. Yana Peel, the corporate records show, holds a one-third stake in Novalpina, according to the Guardian.
In a statement released on Friday, Novalpina Capital announced that it will unveil a “new governance and transparency framework” at NSO within 90 days. The new framework will abide to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and will “set benchmark for transparency in cybersecurity industry,” the statement said. In the future, the statement said, NSO will aim to disclose “all information of relevance and importance” unless it is prohibited in law from doing so or it cannot do so for reasons of public safety.”
“Novalpina and NSO are committed to do whatever necessary to ensure NSO’s technology is used only for its intended lawful purpose — the prevention of harm to our fundamental human rights to life, liberty and security from acts of terrorism and serious crime,” Stephen Peel says in the statement.
In February, Stephen Peel stepped down from the board of Global Witness, a humans rights nonprofit, after public outcry over his stake in NSO. “As an organisation we have concerns about the potential for the abuse of surveillance technology,” Global Witness’s board chair Mark Stephens said in a statement. “The misuse of this kind of technology can have a damaging effect on the work of NGOs and individuals and in the hands of repressive regimes, it can be used to deadly effect.”
“I have no involvement in the operations or decisions of Novalpina, which is managed by my husband, Stephen Peel, and his partners,” Yana Peel told the Guardian in a statement. She continued: “Throughout my entire adult life I have campaigned in public and private for free speech and defense of human rights. This is something I feel very strongly about and these values guide decisions in all aspects of my life and work.” Peel refused to discuss the allegations against NSO but accused the Guardian of being “quite misinformed” about the company’s activity.
Serpentine Galleries has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Peel, who in the past called Serpentine a “safe space for unsafe ideas,” is known for her human rights advocacy. She served as a judge for the 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards and has publicly advocated for dissident artists, most famously the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
“I’m used to art institutions being sponsored by arms dealers but not being actually run by people who are involved in extremely advanced warfare,” artist Hito Steyerl said during a talk she gave at a conference in New York City on Friday, June 14. “Seeing that in the heart of the art world is literally unprecedented,” she added. Steyerl recently criticized Serpentine for accepting funding from the Sackler family, owners of the opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma. The artist, who has been commissioned to present a new work at Serpentine during fall of 2019, told Hyperallergic that she is currently weighing her response to the new reports.