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US puts new controls on Israeli Pegasus spyware maker

November 3, 2021

US authorities said the NSO Group's spyware helped authoritarian governments "silence dissent." The new measures will limit NSO Group's access to US components and technology.

An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, maker of the Pegasus spyware favored by governments and intelligence services worldwide
The NSO Group's spyware allows for smartphones to be monitoredImage: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Iamges

The US Department of Commerce on Wednesday announced export limits on the Israeli software company NSO Group, the developer of infamous Pegasus spyware.

In July 2021, media investigations revealed that Pegasus spyware was used around the world to monitor tens of thousands of human rights activists, journalists, politicians and business executives. 

The investigation led by media consortium "Forbidden Stories" found that people in 50 different countries had been targeted by the malware.

The technology essentially turned smartphones into spying devices, allowing a user to track a target's location, read messages, look through photo's and even secretly turn on the phone's camera. 

What did US regulators say?

"These tools have also enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent," the US Commerce Department said in a statement.

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The Commerce Department added NSO group to its so-called "entity list," which restricts technology and information transfer from US-based organizations and researchers.

US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement that Washington is committed to "aggressively" use export controls to "hold companies accountable that develop, traffic, or use technologies to conduct malicious activities" threatening cybersecurity of government officials and civil society.

The US also added Israeli spyware company Candiru to the entity list on Wednesday. In July, US tech giant Microsoft said it had blocked Candiru tools allegedly used for similar purposes as Pegasus spyware. 

How has NSO responded?

NSO Group told AFP news agency it would seek to reverse the move. 

"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."

The technology company has consistently rejected the reporting on its Pegasus software, saying that it has been designed purely for governmental actors to use in the fight against terrorism and crime.

wmr/nm (AP, AFP)