The Israeli spyware company NSO Group, known for Pegasus, has been placed on a US blacklist by the Biden administration. It said the company acted contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States. This reveals US’s concerns about the impact of the spyware on national security.
Three months ago, Pegasus spyware was in the global media limelight as it had been allegedly deployed by foreign governments against dissidents, journalists, diplomats, activists and members of the clergy. The spyware’s clients included Saudi Arabia, India, Hungary, and the United Arab Emirates.
It should be noted that the new designation which places NSO amongst hackers from China and Russia, comes three months after a consortium of journalists working with the French non-profit group Forbidden Stories, revealed multiple cases of journalists and activists who were hacked by foreign governments using the spyware.
The commerce department, in a statement, said the move is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to put human rights at the center of the US foreign policy, including by working to stem the proliferation of digital tools used for repression. The entity list also includes three other companies because the US had reasonable cause to believe, based on specific and articulated facts, that the entity has been involved, or is involved, or poses a significant risk of being or becoming involved in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.
An NSO spokesperson said the company is dismayed by the decision given that its technologies support US national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime, and thus will advocate for the decision to be reversed. “We look forward to presenting the full information regarding how we have the world’s most rigorous compliance and human rights programs that are based on the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contracts with government agencies that misused our products.”
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The blacklisting means that NSO will be barred from buying parts and components from US companies without a specific licence, putting a cloud over the sale of the company’s software globally. The commerce department said investigative information had shown NSO and another Israeli surveillance company called Candiru had developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used this tool to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers.
The NSO says its spyware is used by foreign government clients to target serious criminals. The Pegasus spyware can intercept phone conversations and texts, as well as photographs and any other material on phone. It can also turn a phone into a listening device.