The US is sanctioning an Israeli spyware company that it accused of supplying technology to foreign governments “to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers”.
NSO Group had been accused of assisting despotic regimes in targeting journalists, political dissidents, and human rights activists in reports earlier this year.
The company responded at the time that its spyware was only used by governments to hack the mobile phones of terrorists and serious criminals.
However, the US Department of Commerce has now accused it and three other companies of “acting contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States”.
A series of rulings in the High Court published last month found that Dubai’s ruler had used the software to spy on his ex-wife and her lawyers during a legal battle over their children.
The company has been added to the US Entity List that sanctions them with trade restrictions, requiring them to receive licences if they are going to receive any technologies from America.
While it would not prohibit Americans or American companies from hiring NSO Group or using its technologies, Vice News has reported that the sanction could mean that NSO may struggle to acquire products and services from American companies such as Amazon, Cisco, Dell, Intel and Microsoft whom documents suggest it uses to deploy its spyware.
Alongside NSO Group on the Entity List is Candiru, another Israeli spyware firm, as well as the Russian company Positive Technologies and the Computer Security Initiative Consultancy from Singapore.
The US secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo said: “The United States is committed to aggressively using export controls to hold companies accountable that develop, traffic, or use technologies to conduct malicious activities that threaten the cybersecurity of members of civil society, dissidents, government officials, and organisations here and abroad.”
The Commerce Department added: “Today’s action is a part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to put human rights at the centre of US foreign policy, including by working to stem the proliferation of digital tools used for repression.”
A spokesperson for the spyware company told Sky News: “NSO Group is dismayed by the decision given that our technologies support US national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime, and thus we will advocate for this 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 the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products.”
Referencing NSO Group recently, the head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, Lindy Cameron, said the Pegasus Papers stories “demonstrated something we have raised a red flag about before – the commercial market for sophisticated cyber exploitation products”.
“Those with lower capabilities are able to simply purchase techniques and tradecraft – and obviously these unregulated products can easily be put to use by those who don’t have a history of responsible use of these techniques.
“We need to avoid a marketplace for vulnerabilities and exploits developing that makes us all less safe,” she warned.