Lawmakers call on Biden administration to take further steps against spyware groups

Lawmakers call on Biden administration to take further steps against spyware groups
© Associated Press/Sebastian Scheiner

A group of House Democrats on Friday applauded the Biden administration for blacklisting key companies involved in cyber espionage efforts, including Israeli company NSO Group, but called on the White House to go further and considering imposing sanctions to limit this activity.

Their concerns came days after the Commerce Department announced the addition of NSO Group and three other international companies to its “entity list,” effectively blacklisting them. 

While NSO Group has pushed back against charges that its Pegasus software poses a threat, it has been accused of providing spyware that various foreign governments have used to target thousands of dissidents, journalists, human rights advocates and others. 

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Reps. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiDemocrats to target Section 230 in Haugen hearing CNN airs live footage of its reporting on tennis star being censored in China Lawmakers increasingly anxious about US efforts against Russian hackers MORE (D-N.J.), Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooHillicon Valley — Chinese disinformation accounts removed House passes bipartisan bills to strengthen network security, cyber literacy Democrats to target Section 230 in Haugen hearing MORE (D-Calif.), Katie Porter (D-Calif,) and Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroIsrael says blacklisted NSO Group 'has nothing to do' with government policies Hillicon Valley — The race to report cyber breaches Lawmakers call on Biden administration to take further steps against spyware groups MORE (D-Texas) put out a joint statement Friday describing the entity listing as a “victory for human rights,” particularly following previous action by the Commerce Department last month to crackdown on the sale of hacking products.  

“The NSO Group sold Pegasus to repressive governments knowing that it would most likely be used to target journalists, activists, peaceful critics, and persecuted groups,” the lawmakers said. “The entity listing signals that the US government is ready to take strong action to stop US exporters and investors from engaging with such companies. It also shows that the United States will not hesitate to blacklist companies associated with our allies or key strategic partners when such activities directly threaten US interests and ideals.”

The same group of House Democrats previously pressed the Biden administration to establish a sanctions regime against individuals and groups selling tools like Pegasus to foreign governments. They reiterated their call for action on Friday. 

“While the entity listing limits exports by US companies in support of NSO Group, it would not limit involvement of American investment funds that have been complicit in the company’s abusive business model,” the lawmakers said. “We renew our calls for the administration to work with allies to establish multilateral agreements that would limit the ability of investors in democratic countries to subsidize companies selling hack-for-hire weapons on the open market.”

The lawmakers outlined their concerns in letters sent Friday to Commerce Secretary Gina RaimondoGina RaimondoEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Shipwreck sends waste thousands of miles Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey Scott says he will block nominees until Biden officials testify on supply chain crisis MORE and Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden administration prepared to use 'other tools' on Iran amid troubled nuclear talks US intelligence says Russia planning Ukraine offensive involving 175K troops: reports MORE. 

They asked Blinken to “use the resources of the State Department to further expose the direct link between advanced surveillance technologies and human rights abuse around the world,” including through sanctions and diplomatic pressure. The lawmakers commended Raimondo for her agency’s actions, but also detailed “stronger measures” to address surveillance concerns.

The Hill has reached out to both the Commerce and State departments for comment on the letters.