Spies tried to infiltrate Citizen Lab and trick them into talking about their research on Israeli spytech company NSO Group

Citizen Lab (previously) is a world-renowned research group that specializes in deep, careful investigations into the nexus of state and private surveillance, outing everything from the Chinese spies who took over computers in Tibetan embassies around the world to the bizarre deployments of state-level cyberweapons against Mexicans who campaigned for limits on sugary sodas.

Some of Citizen Lab's most prominent and significant work has been their research on the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber-arms dealer that outfits governments and industry with sophisticated spyware used by some of the world's most brutal dictatorships — and NSO Group was also implicated in the brutal murder and dismemberment of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Now, Citizen Lab, working with the Associated Press, has revealed that unknown parties hired undercover operatives to approach Citizen Lab employees under false pretenses in order to pump them for information on their NSO Group research and to ask questions like "Why do you write only about NSO?" "Do you write about it because it's an Israeli company?" "Do you hate Israel?"

The undercover agents posed as "socially conscious investors" and it's believed that they secretly recorded the conversations they had with Citizen Lab employees.

After twigging to the scam, Citizen Lab and the AP planned a sting, letting one of the undercover agents lure a Citizen Lab employee named John Scott-Railton to a meeting where they were set up to make their own recordings. At a signal from Scott-Railton the AP reporters approached the man and asked him why the company he claimed to work for didn't exist. The man said "I know what I'm doing," gathered his things and left, pacing the restaurant while waiting for the check. The AP reporters approached him again and he said "I don't have to give you any explanation," then "retreated to a back room and closed the door."

NSO Group denies any involvement with the would-be infiltrators.

The conversation began with a discussion of kites, gossip about African politicians, and a detour through Scott-Railton's family background. But Lambert, just like Bowman, eventually steered the talk to Citizen Lab and NSO.

"Work drama? Tell me, I like drama!" Lambert said at one point, according to Scott-Railton's recording of the conversation. "Is there a big competition between the people inside Citizen Lab?" he asked later.

Like Bowman, Lambert appeared to be working off cue cards and occasionally made awkward conversational gambits. At one point he repeated a racist French expression, insisting it wasn't offensive. He also asked Scott-Railton questions about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and whether he grew up with any Jewish friends. At another point he asked whether there might not be a "racist element" to Citizen Lab's interest in Israeli spyware.

After dessert arrived, the AP reporters approached Lambert at his table and asked him why his company didn't seem to exist.

He seemed to stiffen.

APNewsBreak: Undercover agents target cybersecurity watchdog [Raphael SatterSeattle Times]