Skip to main content

One of the federal government’s expert advisers on internet harms is facing criticism over his role in advising a global spy-technology firm.

University of Ottawa law professor Vivek Krishnamurthy is one of 12 experts the Liberal government appointed this year to work on overhauling Ottawa’s plan to regulate online harms – which includes a proposal to legislate in areas such as hate speech and terrorism.

As the director of the University of Ottawa’s Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), Mr. Krishnamurthy regularly comments on federal efforts to regulate the internet.

But his past contract work at a law firm working on behalf of NSO Group, the creator of Pegasus phone-spying software that undemocratic regimes have used to target journalists and political opponents, has led some of his academic and advocacy peers to declare they will no longer work with him or CIPPIC.

Ron Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which has generated international headlines for its published research on the work of Pegasus, obtained e-mails that he said show Mr. Krishnamurthy was hired in part to dig up information on the Citizen Lab. Mr. Krishnamurthy is a former student and research assistant of Mr. Deibert.

“The Citizen Lab, which I direct, will no longer collaborate with Vivek and neither with CIPPIC, as long as he is in charge,” Mr. Deibert said in a statement to The Globe and Mail. Further, Mr. Deibert said he does not think Mr. Krishnamurthy should be advising the government on online harms after working on behalf of a company Mr. Deibert called “one of the world’s foremost purveyors of online harms.”

The Guardian newspaper published a report last month detailing Mr. Krishnamurthy’s work on behalf of the NSO in 2019 as the company – then being acquired by an equity group called Novalpina Capital – sought to address Citizen Lab reports on its activities.

Majority of Canadians support federal government’s plan to regulate internet, poll shows

Google executive cautions Canada against adopting ‘extreme’ new internet rules

In a detailed written response to The Globe, Mr. Krishnamurthy said he regrets working on behalf of NSO for the Foley Hoag law firm during a five-month period in 2019, but said he did so in the belief that the company’s new ownership was genuinely interested in reform. He also noted that it is common for companies with poor human rights records to hire lawyers and consultants for advice on how to improve.

Internal corporate e-mails Mr. Deibert obtained through U.K. data-protection laws revealed discussions about how Mr. Krishnamurthy should approach Mr. Deibert. The Citizen Lab director rebuffed the initial outreach in March, 2019, after Mr. Krishnamurthy explained he was working with the Novalpina-owned NSO Group. The e-mails showed that three months later, there was a corporate discussion about a new approach that included Mr. Krishnamurthy inviting Mr. Deibert for a beer.

Mr. Krishnamurthy then sent Mr. Deibert an e-mail from an academic account with another attempt at a meeting, writing: “You’d be having a drink with me in my capacity as your former student, and not as anything else!”

Mr. Deibert, who also declined that invitation, told The Globe that Mr. Krishnamurthy’s interactions with him were inappropriate and his work on behalf of the NSO ”should disqualify him from any work in the public interest.”

In his statement to The Globe, Mr. Krishnamurthy said his invitation to meet Mr. Deibert for a beer was a sincere personal attempt to “clear the air.”

“He declined, and again, I respected his wishes. I continue to respect Ron and I support his work at Citizen Lab,” he said. “I regret that my former firm’s brief engagement with Novalpina did not have the desired effect of changing NSO’s behaviour, and I hope that civil society groups like Citizen Lab will succeed in ending the company’s extremely harmful activities.”

In 2021, the U.S. Commerce department placed trade restrictions on the NSO Group, saying it “supplied spyware to foreign governments that used this tool to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.”

The company responded at the time by saying that its tools combat crime and terrorism and that it terminates its contract with government agencies that misuse its products.

Mr. Krishnamurthy said he was honoured to have been appointed to the expert advisory panel, even though he has criticized the federal government’s digital policy. He also provided a list of academic colleagues who would defend his work.

Among them, former justice minister and former University of Ottawa president Allan Rock said Mr. Krishnamurthy is a highly ethical individual who was acting appropriately in his capacity as a lawyer giving advice to a client.

“I think the criticism is ill-founded,” he said. “I regret Citizen Lab’s reaction. I think their reaction is not justified by the facts here, and it’s wrong.”

Ashley Michnowski, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, said in a statement that the 12-person advisory panel has “a broad range of perspectives.” The government’s statement did not refer to Mr. Krishnamurthy directly.

Citizen Lab is not the only organization distancing itself from Mr. Krishnamurthy.

The digital rights advocacy organization Access Now, a global non-profit based in Brooklyn, which has worked on projects with Foley Hoag and the University of Ottawa’s CIPPIC, told The Globe it is re-assessing those relationships.

“The advocacy work by Access Now and CIPPIC centred on the growth of cloud computing centres in countries that systematically fail to protect human rights,” Access Now general counsel Peter Micek said. ”We do not have further joint projects planned, and we are reviewing our relationship with Vivek Krishnamurthy and CIPPIC in light of these revelations.”

Since it was founded by Mr. Deibert more than 20 years ago, the Citizen Lab has received international recognition for its investigations exposing covert state surveillance against members of civil society.

Over the past five years, the Citizen Lab has focused on a particular kind of spyware being sold to governments. The NSO Group’s Pegasus phone-spying software can take over a target’s phone and secretly relay voice calls, pictures, SMS messages, and location to whomever is listening.

The Citizen Lab has released reports that say the NSO Group’s technology is being misused, particularly by states in the Middle East and Central America. In 2018, the group revealed that a Saudi dissident in Canada was targeted by the spyware. More recently, the Citizen Lab has helped highlight the fact that the software was directed at targets in Spain and Britain.

NSO Group did not respond to requests for comment this week.

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.