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 blow to the Israeli company and reveals a deep undercurrent of concern by the US about the impact of spyware on national security interests.
It comes three months after a consortium of journalists working with the French non-profit group Forbidden Stories, including the Guardian, revealed multiple cases of journalists and activists who were hacked by foreign governments using the spyware.
The Guardian and others also revealed that the mobile numbers of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and nearly his entire cabinetwere 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.
“This effort is aimed at improving citizens’ digital security, combatting cyber threats, and mitigating unlawful surveillance and follows a recent interim final rule released by the commerce department establishing controls on the export, re-export, or in-country transfer of certain items that can be used for malicious cyber activities.
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”.
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.
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.