Israel technology firm ‘NSO Group’ received a landmark ban from the Biden administration on Wednesday for selling smartphone surveillance tools. The blacklist is the strongest measure taken by the US government to curb largely unregulated global spyware abuse.
The US Department of Commerce accused the company of selling hacking spyware to foreign governments targeting specific individuals, from dissidents to members of the Catholic clergy. Security researchers caught the company’s spyware attempting to access the iPhones of a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates and a journalist in Mexico.
NSO Group Spokesperson Zamir Dahbash said that the spyware was solely used to track criminal and terrorist investigations for authorized governments. The firm’s corporate mission statement: “make the world a safe place”, is advertised to governments and law enforcement agencies around the world as necessary to track kidnappers, terrorists, and drug dealers. This pitch has earned the company over $61 million from contracts in Mexico alone, while also pitching throughout Europe.
NSO Group emphasized their commitment to global safety when responding to the ban in a statement, announcing that they were, “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.” They also claimed that product misuse has “resulted in multiple terminations of contract with government agencies.”
Conglomerates like Apple, Google, and Facebook have increased their encryption methods to protect data in their systems from government agency tracking. NSO Group’s spyware tool, Pegasus, bypasses security measures by baiting digital users to click on malicious links or succumb to software flaws. Facebook is currently suing the firm for targeting 1,400 users on their Whatsapp messaging service.