US lawmakers call for Israeli spyware firm, other groups to be sanctioned

U.S. lawmakers are calling on the Treasury Department to sanction an Israeli spyware firm and three other foreign surveillance groups, contending that they assisted authoritarian regimes with carrying out human rights abuses.

A coalition of 13 Democratic lawmakers penned a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet YellenJanet YellenYellen says Biden's COVID-19 relief bill 'acted like a vaccine for the American economy' On the Money — Yellen highlights wealth gap in MLK speech Yellen: US has 'much more work' to close racial wealth gap MORE and Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenPutin, Macron to hold call on Friday amid rising Russia-Ukraine tensions Meeks leading bipartisan trip to Ukraine amid Russia tensions Negotiating with a liar (Putin's dog is a cat)  MORE on Tuesday asking that they slap sanctions on top officials at the Israeli spyware company NSO Group, United Aram Emirates cybersecurity firm DarkMatter and European online bulk surveillance groups Nexa Technologies and Trovicor.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Energy & Environment — High court will hear case on water rule Democrats face scaled-back agenda after setbacks Biden comments add momentum to spending bill's climate measures  MORE (Ore.) and Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffMask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House CIA says 'Havana syndrome' unlikely a result of 'worldwide campaign' by foreign power The Hill's Morning Report - Biden to make voting rights play in Atlanta MORE (Calif.) are among the signatories of the letter, which was first reported by Reuters.

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The Democrats are specifically asking that the Treasury Department hit officials of the four companies with Global Magnitsky sanctions, which are meant to penalize entities that allegedly allowed human rights abuses to take place. The penalty would freeze the officials’ bank accounts and bar them from traveling to the U.S.

They wrote that financial sanctions are needed “To meaningfully punish them and send a clear signal to the surveillance technology industry,” noting that the surveillance companies “depend on the U.S. financial system and U.S.-based investors, particularly when they eventually wish to raise billions by listing on the stock market.”

“We write to urge you to implement Global Magnitsky sanctions for technology companies that have enabled human rights abuses, including the arrests, disappearance, torture and murder of human rights activists and journalists, such as Jamal Khashoggi, by selling powerful surveillance technology to authoritarian governments,” the lawmakers wrote.

“Each of these companies are complicit in human rights abuses enabled through the surveillance technologies and services they sold to their authoritarian foreign government customers,” they later added.

The letter comes after Reuters reported earlier this month that the phones of at least nine State Department employees based in or working on issues relating to Uganda were hacked through spyware from the NSO Group.

Days later, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced that it was tightening its guidelines for its cyber exports, which require countries purchasing the technology to sign a declaration that they will use the products “for the investigation and prevention of terrorist acts and serious crimes only.”

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The Commerce Department added NSO Group to its “entity list” in November, which effectively blacklisted the company, for allegedly developing spyware programs and selling them to foreign governments to allow surveillance of dissidents, journalists, academics and others. Later in the month, Apple sued the firm on accusations that it targeted and surveilled customers.

Surveillance groups have reportedly come under close examination in the U.S. after media reports surfaced of them having connections to human rights abuses.

NSO Group’s spokesperson told The Hill in a statement that the firm is “committed to take part of any push for further regulations and restrictions” while it is “already implementing our unique compliance policy.”

“We have been closely regulated by the Israeli government, which means that there is a long list of prohibited countries and that we only sell to governments authorized by the State of Israel, for the sole purpose of preventing terror and crime. Once the software is sold, the company does not operate the system,” the spokesperson added.

The spokesperson also said the company “has chosen ethics upon revenues, and we strongly believe that our contribution to the global security including US’ national interests should.”

Trovicor responded to the lawmakers’ request in a letter to Wyden, which was shared with The Hill. In it, the company’s management said the letter to Yellen and Blinken “inaccurately conflates a range of different surveillance technologies and misrepresents the use of lawful interception for legitimate investigation purposes.”

The company specifically said the claim that Trovicor “provided bulk internet monitoring technology” to Bahrain is “untrue,” contending that the lawmakers likely “confused Trovicor with another company that has been mentioned in the press in the past.”

The company also said Trovicor’s products do not constitute “Spyware,” and are rather “designed to be used for targeted investigations against identified individuals (as opposed to “Bulk surveillance).”

“We are dismayed that you should seek to sanction our company and would welcome the opportunity to explain to you how our systems are used in the lawful prosecution of criminals and terrorists overseen by judicial process — a process that is of course also used in the United States,” Trovicar Management wrote to Wyden. 

Trovicar Management said the request in the letter was “very clearly based on a misrepresentation of Trovicors’ products and customers and is potentially extremely damaging to us as a legitimate company.”

“We respectfully insist that you issue a retraction of your request to implement sanctions forthwith,” it added.

Nexa Technologies also objected to the letter, telling The Hill in a statement on Thursday that it “is simply erroneous, unfounded and unjust.”

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“Nexa Technologies is not a spyware firm and the solution provided doesn’t decrypt any Internet communication,” the company added.

It specifically said its system in Egypt “did not allow for any call recording, any direct tracking of individuals, or any decryption of emails or other communications.”

“It is thus clear that Nexa’s solution was neither a bulk internet monitoring tool, nor a hacking software, nor a location tracking system,” the company added.

DarkMatter could not be reached for comment.

— Updated Dec. 16 at 5:01 p.m.