Biden administration blacklists two Israeli spyware firms

Herzliya-based NSO Group expresses dismay, insists it will be vindicated.

By David Hellerman, World Israel News

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced Wednesday it was slapping new export restrictions on the NSO Group, the Israeli company whose spyware was used by foreign governments to spy on public officials, activists and journalists.

A second, lesser-known Israeli firm, the Tel Aviv-based Candiru, was also blacklisted.

They and firms from Russia and Singapore were being added to the department’s “entity list.” The designation limits their access to U.S. components and technology by requiring government permission for exports.

The Commerce Department said that putting these companies on the entity list was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to promote human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

“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,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

The NSO Group has been under fire since July, when reports first revealed it had licensed its Pegasus spyware to foreign governments who then used it to spy on heads of state, dissidents, journalists and others by hacking into their cellular phones. NSO says it marketed its spyware for counter-terror use.

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The Herzliya-based firm responded to the designation with disappointment.

“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,” NSO said in a statement.

“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 the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products.”

Candiru specializes in surveillance and cyberespionage technology.

The other two firms designated by the Biden administration was the Russian company, Positive Technologies, and Computer Security Initiative Consultancy, which is based in Singapore. The Commerce Department said they trafficked in “cyber tools used to gain unauthorized access” to IT systems.

Associated Press contributed to this report.