United States blacklists Pegasus spyware developer

The United States (U.S.) has reportedly blacklisted the Israeli company behind Pegasus spyware, meant to spy on journalists, government officers, corporate executives, and politicians across the globe. 

According to the Washington Post, the spyware company NSO is in the midst of controversy yet again as the U.S. Department of Commerce has issued a statement that Pegasus has enabled foreign governments to repress. In their statement, the U.S. Department has claimed that it is the practice of dictatorial regimes to target dissidents, journalists, and activists outside of their sovereign borders.

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The United States on Wednesday added the Israeli spyware company NSO Group to its ‘blacklist’. Reportedly, phone hacking tools were used by foreign governments to “maliciously target” the government, to spy on the phones of officials, workers, journalists, academics, and embassy workers around the world. The move marks a significant blow to the company, which emerged in July in an investigation by the Global Pegasus Project Consortium, which includes the Washington Post and 16 other news organizations around the world. The consortium published dozens of articles describing how NSO users misused its powerful spyware Pegasus.

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The move could also escalate tensions between the United States and Israel, where the NSO is a valuable technical powerhouse. Exports of NSO software are regulated by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which requires their approval because it is the sale of any weapon. Israeli sources familiar with the matter said Israel and other countries involved had only been given an hour’s notice that the companies would be listed due to regulatory hurdles in Washington. 

According to reports, the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment. State Department spokesman Ned Price noted that the United States was not taking action against the Israeli government or against Russia and Singapore, which are the other countries involved.

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The Commerce Department said in a statement that the action was part of the Biden administration’s “efforts to keep human rights at the center of US foreign policy, including working to prevent the proliferation of digital tools used in repression”. “We look forward to further discussions with the Israeli government to ensure that the products of these companies are not used to target human rights defenders, journalists, and others who have been targeted,” he said. 

Reacting to the decision, the Israeli company NSO said that its technologies support US national security interests and policies for preventing terrorism and crime. “We are trying to overturn the US decision,” he said. “Numerous contacts with government agencies that misuse our products have been lost.”

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According to reports, the NSO has consistently denied the results of the Pegasus project. Dozens of NSO law enforcement, military, and intelligence users in more than 40 countries routinely target journalists, politicians, and human rights activists with Pegasus, which could hack them. The NSO has acknowledged problems with some users, in cell phones, in the past.

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Washington has also targeted the Singapore-based Computer Security Initiative consultancy with the Israeli company Candidario and the Russian firm Positive Technologies, which has been accused of smuggling hacking tools. In a statement, PositiveTechnology said that the listing would “have little or no effect on our business” and that the move was not surprising. “We sincerely believe that geopolitics should not hinder the technological advancement of society and that we do what we can to ensure global cybersecurity,” they said on their website.

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It is pertinent to note that the initial version of the hacking software was introduced in 2016, through which the spyware sends their target text messages forcing them to click on the message as a trap. To download this spyware, the recipient has to click on the links in the messages, but at the same time, the chances of its successful installation are reduced as phone users have now become suspicious concerning the clicking of suspicious links.

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