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The US has placed Israeli firm NSO Group on a sanctions list for its use of spyware


The Israeli companies NSO Group and Candiru were blacklisted by the United States Commerce Department on Wednesday, accusing them of providing spyware to foreign governments that "maliciously targeted" journalists, embassy employees, and activists in the United States.


In a so-called "entity list," Commerce Department officials included the Israeli companies, effectively prohibiting them from purchasing software components from United States vendors without first obtaining a license from that country.


Positive Technologies of Russia and Computer Security Initiative Consultancy of Singapore have also been added to the list of companies participating in the competition. Both companies were charged with trafficking in "cyber tools used to obtain unauthorized access to information systems" by the Department of Commerce.


Combined, they represent one of the most significant steps taken by the Biden administration to date to curtail the sale of hacking tools, which analysts claim have been used in human rights abuses around the world.


The Commerce Department said in a statement that "today's action is part of the Biden-Harris Administration's efforts to center US foreign policy on human rights, including by addressing the proliferation of digital tools used for repression."


The NSO Group reacted angrily to the announcement from the Department of Commerce. Despite the fact that its technologies contribute to the protection of national security interests and policies of the United States by preventing terrorism and crime, the company expressed disappointment in the decision and said it would advocate for the decision to be overturned in a statement.


We look forward to sharing the full picture of how we have the world's most stringent compliance and human rights programs," the company says in a statement. "These programs have already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts [sic] with government agencies that misused our products," the company says.


Positive Technologies and Computer Security Initiative Consultancy did not respond to requests for comment within a reasonable amount of time. Candiru did not respond to requests for comment.


It was suspected that Positive Technologies was providing assistance to Russia's FSB intelligence agency that the Treasury Department sanctioned the company in April. The company has categorically denied all allegations of wrongdoing.


NSO Group has been accused by cybersecurity experts and human rights activists for years of selling invasive and easy-to-use mobile hacking software to repressive governments around the world. The Pegasus spyware developed by the NSO Group, according to security researchers, was used to spy on a Moroccan journalist and human rights activist, as well as the widow of a murdered Mexican journalist, among other targets. (According to NSO Group, its software is only available to authorized users who are engaged in law enforcement and counterterrorism operations.)


Authorities in the United States are concerned about the rapid expansion of the hacking tool market and the ability of other countries to quickly develop their own cyber capabilities by leveraging American expertise. Examples include the Justice Department's announcement in September of charges against three former United States intelligence and military operatives who were accused of assisting in the development of a hacking program for a government in the United Arab Emirates.


"The designation by the United States Department of Commerce is an important first step toward restoring some public accountability and order to an otherwise poorly regulated market," said Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which has documented alleged Pegasus abuse.


Natalia Krapiva, the technology legal counsel for the nonprofit Access Now, has stated that other governments may follow the United States' lead in blacklisting spyware vendors.


As CNN's Krapiva reported, the United States is "claiming that these companies are violating not only universal human rights, but also US national security." "As a result of the United States' decision to blacklist them, other democratic powers will almost certainly be forced to respond in kind, which we strongly encourage them to do."

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