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26 Jan 2021

Ryan Gallagher, Bloomberg Businessweek

Francisco Partners alleged to profit from surveillance technology sales to repressive states; incl. co. comments

"Silicon Valley Investment Firm Profits From Surveillance States", 26 Jan 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... 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 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.

... 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...

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.

... 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.”