Israeli company NSO Group was put on a US blacklist by the Biden administration.
This happened after it was determined that the Israeli spyware maker acted “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US”.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo released the following statement:
“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 organizations here and abroad.”
Positive Technologies of Russia, and Computer Security Initiative Consultancy PTE LTD, from Singapore, were also listed. The Department said they trafficked in cyber tools used to gain unauthorized access to computer networks.
The commerce department said it included NSO and the other companies on the so-called “entity list” because it 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”.
“We are not taking action against countries or governments where these entities are located,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department.
In the past, the NSO Group and Candiru have been accused of selling hacking tools to authoritarian regimes. NSO says it only sells its products to law enforcement and intelligence agencies and takes steps to curb abuse.
An NSO spokesperson said the company was “dismayed” by the decision since its technologies “support U.S. national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime, and thus we will advocate for this decision to be reversed.”
NSO will present information regarding its “rigorous” compliance and human rights programs, “which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products,” the spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement to Reuters.
Israel’s Defense Ministry which gave the export license to NSO group declined to comment on the matter.
Additionally, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Positive Technologies, a Russian cybersecurity firm, this year for providing support to Russian security services.
Positive Technologies said the new sanctions will not affect their business and will not prevent the company from a planned public listing.
“We do not know on what grounds the U.S. Commerce Department added us to the list,” General Director Denis Baranov said in an emailed comment.
“Anyway we repelled sanction risks earlier and they do not pose additional threats for us now,” he wrote.
The Biden administration’s move represents a victory for researchers at Citizen Lab and Amnesty International, who have documented multiple cases of alleged human rights abuses using spyware dating back to 2016. The research has been heavily criticised by NSO but the Biden administration’s decision has, in effect, vouched for the researchers’ findings.
“With this move, the US government has acknowledged what Amnesty and other activists have been saying for years: NSO Group’s spyware is a tool of repression which has been used around the world to violate human rights,” said Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech. “This decision sends a strong message to NSO Group that it can no longer profit from human rights abuses without repercussions.”
WhatsApp, which is suing NSO in a US court following allegations that the technology was used to target 1,400 of its users in 2019, said the administration’s decision was “an important step in protecting people’s private communication and personal safety”.
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