November 29, 2021

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US bans trade with security firm NSO Group over Pegasus spyware

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Surveillance software developer NSO Group may have a very tough road ahead. The US Commerce Department has added NSO to its Entity List, effectively banning trade with the firm. The move bars American companies from doing business with NSO unless they receive explicit permission. That’s unlikely, too, when the rule doesn’t allow license exceptions for exports and the US will default to rejecting reviews.

NSO and fellow Israeli company Candiru (also on the Entity List) face accusations of enabling hostile spying by authoritarian governments. They’ve allegedly supplied spyware like NSO’s Pegasus to “authoritarian governments” that used the tools to track activists, journalists and other critics in a bid to crush political dissent. This is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s push to make human rights “the center” of American foreign policy, the Commerce Department said.

The latest round of trade bans also affects Russian company Positive Technologies and Singapore’s Computer Security Initiative Consultancy, bot of which were accused of peddling hacking tools.

We’ve asked NSO Group for comment, although its official media contact address produced an error. The company has strongly rejected claims of enabling abuses in the past, including denials that Pegasus was used to target murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. NSO said it had blocked access for previous abuses, and it even hired a libel attorney who accused investigative journalists and their partners of misinterpretation and making unfounded assumptions.

The Commerce Department claims to have evidence of NSO’s actions, though. The net effect is the same. NSO isn’t necessarily doomed. Like blocklist member Huawei, though, it may struggle to operate without access to any American partners it used before. 

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