Decision against company at heart of Pegasus project reflects deep concern about impact of spyware on US national security interests
NSO Group has been placed on a US blacklist by the Biden administration after it determined the Israeli spyware maker has acted “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US”.
The finding by the commerce department represents a major blow to the Israeli company and reveals a deep undercurrent of concern by the US about the impact of spyware on national security.
The company’s signature spyware – known as Pegasus – is alleged to have been deployed by foreign governments against dissidents, journalists, diplomats and members of the clergy, with several alleged victims in the UK. Its clients have included Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary and India.
The new designation – which places NSO in the company of 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, including American citizens.
The Guardian and other members of the consortium also revealed that the mobile numbers of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and nearly his entire cabinet were contained on a leaked list of individuals who were selected as possible targets of surveillance.
“Today’s action is a part of the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to put human rights at the center of US foreign policy, including by working to stem the proliferation of digital tools used for repression,” the commerce department said in a statement.
The commerce department said it included NSO – as well as three 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”.
In effect, it means that NSO will be barred from buying parts and components from US companies without a special licence. It also puts a cloud over the sale of the company’s software globally, including in the US.
The commerce department said that “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”.
NSO has said that its spyware is used by foreign government clients to target serious criminals. It has denied that any of its clients ever targeted Macron or any French government officials.
But in the weeks that followed the publication of the Pegasus project, Israeli officials met with counterparts in the US and France to discuss allegations of abuse of the technology.
Israel has long claimed it maintains robust oversight over any weapon sales to foreign governments. But following the publication of the Pegasus Project this summer and its diplomatic fallout, Israeli officials – both in public and private – have appeared to distance the government from private weapons companies.
Yair Lapid, the country’s foreign minister, said in September that the government had only limited control on how defence exports are used. He added: “We are going to look at this again.”
When Pegasus – NSO’s signature spyware – is deployed, it can intercept phone conversations and texts, as well as photographs and any other material on a phone. It can also turn a phone into a listening device.
An NSO spokesperson said: “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 on the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products.”
A spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in London did not immediately return a request for comment.
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.”
It also marks a step forward for US technology companies such as WhatsApp and Microsoft, who have said spyware made by NSO threatens the safety of their users.
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”.
“We’re grateful to see the US government stand up for human rights and hope to see more nations act to protect people’s ability to have private conversations online,” said a WhatsApp spokesperson, Carl Woog. NSO has denied it was responsible for attacks on WhatsApp users and is seeking to have the matter dismissed.
There was no immediate indication that the UK would follow the US in condemning NSO.