US government blacklists Israeli technology company NSO Group

The US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) has blacklisted the Israeli technology company NSO Group. NSO is the developer and supplier of the spyware Pegasus, which has been found to have been used by foreign governments against opposition politicians and journalists. The software was used against murdered Saudi journalist, Jamal Kashoggi.

According to the BIS, the NSO Group and Candiru, both of Israel were added to what is known as the Entity List based on evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.

“These tools have also enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent.  Such practices threaten the rules-based international order”, the BIS said on its website.

An investigative journalism collaboration from leaked documents involving 17 media organisations, published in July 2021 by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International shows that more than 50,000 phone records were selected as targets by clients of NSO Group for surveillance, including journalists.

Ghana is one of the customers of the NSO Group. The country purchased the Pegasus machine in 2016 with the  justification that it is to be used to fight terrorism. However, by some unexplained circumstances, the country didn’t get the software. It is therefore unclear if the country even tested the software, and if it did, on who.

The purchase of the Pegasus machine became a subject of a court case soon after there was change in government after the 2016 elections. Some officials of the National Communications Authority and National Security who were involved in the deal – in which they made a payment of $4 million to NSO were found guilty and sentenced to various jail terms.

It is still unclear what has become of the Pegasus machine in the country.

The BIS says the 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.

“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, reexport, or in-country transfer of certain items that can be used for malicious cyber activities,” it added.

The US Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo released the following statement: “The United States is committed to aggressively using export controls to hold companies accountable that develop, traffic, or use technologies to conduct malicious activities that threaten the cybersecurity of members of civil society, dissidents, government officials, and organizations here and abroad.”

The NSO Group has in the past refuted all the allegations against it.

In response to the blacklisting by the US government, the company told the AFP news agency it would seek to reverse the move.

“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,” it told the news agency.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi
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