Human technology

EXCLUSIVE US lawmakers call for sanctions on Israeli NSO and spyware companies

The logo of Israeli cyber company NSO Group can be seen at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel, on July 22, 2021. REUTERS / Amir Cohen / File Photo

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WASHINGTON, Dec.15 (Reuters) – A group of U.S. lawmakers are calling on the Treasury Department and State Department to sanction Israeli spyware company NSO Group and three other foreign surveillance firms they say have helped governments authoritarian to commit human rights violations.

Their letter sent Tuesday night and seen by Reuters also calls for sanctions against senior executives at NSO, the United Arab Emirates cybersecurity firm DarkMatter, and European mass online surveillance firms Nexa Technologies and Trovicor.

Lawmakers have called for sanctions from Global Magnitsky, which punishes those accused of allowing human rights violations by freezing bank accounts and banning travel to the United States.

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DarkMatter could not be reached for comment. The other three companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The letter was signed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and 16 other Democratic lawmakers. Along with other industry reporting, they cite a recent Reuters article this month showing NSO spyware was used against State Department employees in Uganda.

Lawmakers have said the spyware industry depends on U.S. investments and banks. “To punish them meaningfully and send a clear signal to the surveillance technology industry, the US government should roll out financial sanctions,” they wrote.

The letter says the companies facilitated the “disappearance, torture and murder of human rights activists and journalists.” Surveillance companies are increasingly under scrutiny by Washington as a barrage of media reports has linked them to human rights abuses.

“These surveillance mercenaries have sold their services to authoritarian regimes with a long history of human rights abuses, giving tyrants vast spying powers,” Wyden told Reuters. “Predictably, these countries have used surveillance tools to lock up, torture and murder journalists and human rights defenders. The Biden administration has the option of turning off the tap on US dollars and to help them go bankrupt for good. “

In November, the Commerce Department put NSO on the so-called Entity List, prohibiting US vendors from selling software or services to the Israeli spyware maker without obtaining special permission.

A number of legal challenges also threaten the industry. Last week, a prominent Saudi activist and the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation sued DarkMatter, alleging the group had hacked his phone.

Apple sued NSO Group in November, claiming it violated US laws by penetrating software installed on iPhones.

A 2019 Reuters investigation, cited in the letter, also revealed a secret hacking unit within DarkMatter, known as Project Raven, which helped the UAE spy on its enemies. In a September deal with the Justice Department, three members of that unit, all former U.S. intelligence officers, admitted to breaking hacking laws.

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Reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco and Joel Schectman and Christopher Bing in Washington; Editing by Christopher Sanders and Lisa Shumaker

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