The resource quickly sparked controversy after users noted the tool almost invariably recommended voters back the Liberal Democrats in their constituency, even in seats the party had never won and indeed polled well-behind the opposition Labour Party in the 2017 General Election.
Moreover, freelance writer Ellie Mae O’Hagan did what no other mainstream journalist seemingly thought to do, and contacted Luke Blaxill, a psephology expert who helped Best for Britain produce a guide on the candidates for which Remainers should tactically vote, including regional recommendations varying from Change UK to SNP to Liberal Democrat to Labour.
“They only published the headline message and refused to publish the guide because they said it was too confusing. Eventually they produced their own guide which essentially just told everyone to vote Lib Dem…The recommendation to vote Lib Dem, especially in Lab-Con marginals, isn't backed up by available data,” he said.
— Ellie Mae O'Hagan 🏴 (@MissEllieMae) October 31, 2019
However, another digital instrument connected to Best for Britain – albeit indirectly – could have far more serious implications for the organisation.
In May 2019, WhatsApp announced it’d identified and fixed a vulnerability allowing hostile actors to inject commercial spyware onto smartphones simply by ringing the number of an individual’s device. Immediately, there were suggestions the vulnerability had been exploited by NSO Group, an Israeli tech firm also known as Q Cyber Technologies, creator of the notorious Pegasus spying application.
Once Pegasus is installed, it begins sending back an individual’s private data, including passwords, contact lists, calendar events, text messages, and live voice calls from popular mobile messaging apps to the operator, who can even turn on a phone’s camera and microphone to capture activity in the phone’s vicinity, and use its GPS function to track the owner’s location and movements. Designed to be stealthy and evade forensic analysis and detection by anti-virus software, it can be deactivated and removed by operators at any time – chillingly, not all vectors the software can exploit are yet known.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it was revealed in August 2016 to have been used by governments the world over to surveil human rights activists and campaigners using iMessage, Gmail, Viber, Facebook, Telegram, and Skype – WhatsApp seemed like an obvious target for the firm’s sinister technology.
— Amnesty International (@amnestyusa) May 14, 2019
A month later, NSO’s majority owner Novalpina Capital pledged to implement a “significant enhancement of respect for human rights”. In an official statement, the private equity firm’s founder Stephen Peel – who sits on NSO’s board - stated Novalpina was “committed to do whatever necessary” to ensure NSO’s technology was “used only for its intended lawful purpose”, and would electively publish “all information of relevance and importance” about the firm’s work, unless it was prohibited by law from doing so, risked public safety, national security, or employee safety, or if it needed to protect “legitimate commercial confidentiality”.
NSO’s new governance framework was also said to “reflect the need for particular attention to be paid to adverse human rights impacts on individuals at heightened risk of vulnerability or marginalisation”, including journalists and human rights defenders. Nonetheless, the negative publicity was significant enough to force Peel’s wife Yana – a key shareholder in Novalpina Capital - from her post as chief executive of London’s renowned Serpentine Galleries.
However, in October WhatsApp publicly confirmed NSO was indeed the company responsible for the attack on its messaging platform, and launched legal action against the company under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and other laws in a San Francisco court. As part of the action, online privacy advocacy group Citizen Lab volunteered to help WhatsApp identify cases where the suspected targets of the May attack were members of civil society.
In the process, Citizen Lab identified over 100 cases of abusive targeting of reporters and campaigners in at least 20 countries across the globe, ranging from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America, that took place after Novalpina acquired NSO and “began an ongoing public relations campaign to promote the narrative the new ownership would curb abuses”.
This by definition raises significant questions for Novalpina – and its founder Peel, a multimillionaire former Conservative party donor and Goldman Sachs executive, who’s also a director of Best for Britain.
Best for Britain was founded prior to the 2017 General Election by a number of committed Remainers, including Gina Miller – she acrimoniously left the organisation not long after the vote, dubbing it “a room full of white males deciding what's going to happen to the country” and “undemocratic”.
It appears Miller’s severe rebuff was poorly and nervously received at Best for Britain headquarters, for after her departure, the group removed all references to who runs the operation, and sits on its board, from its website – now, the ‘Our Team’ page only mentions the gender neutral duo of Mark Malloch Brown, chair, and Naomi Smith, chief executive.
Nonetheless, Peel’s intimate involvement with Best for Britain can be deduced from a variety of yet-extant news articles online, and the organisation’s Companies House records - where it’s registered under the banner of UK-EU Open Policy Limited – which also indicate he donated £350,000 to the organisation last year, very slightly in excess of 10 percent of its total annual income.
Beyond making promises about NSO’s future activities that were evidently empty, his company’s effective ownership of NSO and place on its board is even more dubious given a section of Best for Britain’s website, ‘Our Principles’, cites the UK and Europe being both threatened by “authoritarian tendencies on Europe’s borders, in Russia, Turkey and the Middle East” as one of the key reasons to support Britain’s continued EU membership.
“The EU and Britain are both facing political challenges. These challenges are connected and both sides would be better off if they stayed together. The UK and Europe share the same democratic values…Britain remaining at the heart of Europe means more security against international attacks, more cooperation to stop terrorist networks and more success breaking criminal networks,” the statement reads.
As Citizen Lab outlines in a summary of its findings on NSO, the company and other spyware providers are “equipping repressive governments with powerful tools to spy on those who hold them to account” – if indeed Best for Britain is serious about the threat of “authoritarian tendencies”, Peel’s role at its head, and the head of NSO and its key funder, clearly represents a significant and indefensible conflict of interest.
“NSO Group spyware is being sold to government clients without appropriate controls over how it is employed by those clients…With powerful surveillance technology such as [NSO’s] roaming free, there is nowhere to hide and no one will be safe from those who wish to cause harm. Not acting urgently on this critical public emergency threatens liberal democracy and human rights worldwide,” Citizen Lab concludes.