A group of US lawmakers has applauded the administration of President Joe Biden for blacklisting an Israeli company involved in cyber espionage activities but demanded further actions including sanctions against it.
The US Commerce Department said in a statement on Wednesday that the Biden administration had added Israeli company NSO Group to its “entity list.” The department said the firm had acted “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US.”
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NSO Group has been accused of providing spyware that various foreign governments have used to target thousands of dissidents, journalists, human rights advocates and others.
On Friday, Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Katie Porter (D-Calif,) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) issued a joint statement describing the entity listing as a “victory for human right.”
“The NSO Group sold Pegasus to repressive governments knowing that it would most likely be used to target journalists, activists, peaceful critics, and persecuted groups,” the lawmakers said. “The entity listing signals that the US government is ready to take strong action to stop US exporters and investors from engaging with such companies. It also shows that the United States will not hesitate to blacklist companies associated with our allies or key strategic partners when such activities directly threaten US interests and ideals.”
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The House Democrats previously urged the Biden administration to establish a sanctions regime against individuals and groups selling tools like Pegasus to foreign governments.
On Friday, they reiterated their call for action.
“While the entity listing limits exports by US companies in support of NSO Group, it would not limit the involvement of American investment funds that have been complicit in the company’s abusive business model,” the lawmakers said. “We renew our calls for the administration to work with allies to establish multilateral agreements that would limit the ability of investors in democratic countries to subsidize companies selling hack-for-hire weapons on the open market.”
Smartphones infected with the Pegasus spyware can be turned to a listening device. In addition, the spyware allows the user to read the target’s messages, look through their photos, track their location and even turn on their camera without them knowing.
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A report said in September that traces of Pegasus were found on the mobile phones of at least five current French cabinet ministers and a diplomatic advisor to President Emmanuel Macron. French security services detected the software while inspecting the phones, with the intrusions believed to have taken place in 2019 and 2020, the investigative website Mediapart reported.
A group of 17 media organizations revealed in July that global clients of the Israeli company had identified human rights activists, journalists, lawyers and leading political figures, including the French president, as potential targets for Pegasus. The NSO, however, denied any of its clients ever targeted French government officials.
The surveillance company exports Pegasus to 45 countries around the world. It claims that the software is intended for use only in fighting terrorism and other crimes.