The US commerce department’s blacklist is usually reserved for America’s worst enemies, such as Chinese companies that have been accused of aiding human right abuses, and Russians who proliferate biological and chemical weapons programmes.
But on Wednesday, Israel’s NSO Group joined their ranks, marking a rare decision by the Biden administration to include a major technology company that is closely regulated by the Israeli government on its list of entities that threaten US national security.
Also included on the list was another Israeli surveillance company, Candiru, whose technology was recently alleged by researchers at Citizen Lab, working in conjunction with Microsoft, to have been used by its foreign government clients to target members of civil society with “untraceable” spyware.
The US government said the two companies were added to the list because of evidence that they had “developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers”.
NSO Group has long held that its spyware does not infect US users over US networks, and that its signature spyware, called Pegasus, is only meant to target serious criminals.
But the move by the administration – which according to Axios gave Israel just an hour’s notice before announcing its move – underlines that the US government sees NSO and its capabilities as creating a grave threat.
John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which has documented dozens of allegations of abuse involving NSO spyware’s use against journalists and members of civil society, said the placement of NSO on the blacklist would have an immediate “chilling effect”.
“This is not a list you want to be on,” Scott-Railton said.
In addition to the long list of journalists and activists who have allegedly been hacked by foreign governments using the spyware, the mobile phone of a senior US diplomat, Robert Malley, was also contained on a leaked list of individuals selected as possible targets of surveillance by NSO clients. So too were senior French ministers and officials, including France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.
NSO has staunchly denied that any US or French officials have been targeted by its clients.
“It’s a harsh step but I assume it’s because the Israelis …….