Cybersecurity

US to tighten restrictions on exports of malicious cyber tools

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The Biden administration is expected to announce on Friday an initiative to tighten rules surrounding the exports of certain technologies that have been used by authoritarian governments and bad actors for repression. 

The move comes on the heels of the administration’s sanctioning of the private Israeli spy-ware company NSO Group in November for “malicious cyber activities.” 

The initiative is being announced during the president’s “Summit for Democracy,” a first-ever virtual conference bringing together more than 100 democratic countries in an effort to address rising authoritarianism and efforts to strengthen democracy. 

A senior administration official said the Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative is an outgrowth of the sanctions targeting NSO and other private groups whose “end users are using” such technology to violate human rights. 

NSO spyware was found to be used by foreign governments and individuals to target human rights defenders, journalists and activists, sometimes residing in foreign countries, in what the Commerce Department described as “transnational repression.” 

The initiative expected to be announced on Friday will establish standards around export controls on these types of dual-use technologies in the form of a “nonbinding code of conduct,” guidance for how governments handle such licenses for exports.

The official didn’t address which countries would be part of the initiative. Israel on Monday announced it would tighten restrictions on cyber exports, in the wake of the controversy over NSO. 

The focus will be on better monitoring and, if necessary, restricting the proliferation of such technology. 

Over time, the administration hopes to expand the circle of involved governments and work through regulations and laws to make sure such technology is “used for good and not for ill,” the official said. 

In parallel, the State Department is providing up to $4 million to establish a Multilateral Surge and Sustain Fund for Anti-Censorship Technology, to counter authoritarian censorship of the internet. The fund will work to allow uncensored connection to the internet and sustain it when it is under threat from being shut down — similar to what has occurred in Iran, Sudan, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso when civil protests are taking place. 

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