The U.S. Commerce Department added the Israeli spyware firms NSO group and Candiru, alongside companies from Russia and Singapore, to its Entity List for activities contrary to the United States' national security or foreign policy interests, a statement by the department said on Wednesday.
"NSO Group and Candiru (Israel) were added to the Entity List based on evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments," the statement read, adding that the spyware's tools were used "to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers."
"These tools have also enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent. Such practices threaten the rules-based international order," the statement adds.
“The United States is committed to aggressively using export controls to hold companies accountable that develop, traffic, or use technologies to conduct malicious activities that threaten the cybersecurity of members of civil society, dissidents, government officials, and organizations here and abroad,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo said.
An NSO spokesperson was quoted by the guardian as saying: “NSO Group is dismayed by the decision given that our technologies support U.S. national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime, and thus we will advocate for this decision to be reversed.
“We look forward to presenting the full information regarding how we have the world’s most rigorous compliance and human rights programs that are based on the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products.”
The State Department said in a statement later on Wednesday that the United States will not be pursuing action against the Israeli government over the activities of NSO and Candiru.
"We are not taking action against countries or governments where these entities are located," the statement read.
NSO group is the largest cyberespionage firm in Israel, valued at over one billion dollars, and specializing in cellphone hacking. Candiru, a younger company, specializes in hacking computers. Over the years, countless investigations, spearheaded by the Pegasus Project, have been published on NSO in particular and the misuse of its spyware.
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On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to deal "discreetly" with the alleged hacking by Israeli firm NSO's spyware on French targets, including the president himself, an Israeli source said.
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The company's Pegasus software was reportedly used to surveil French phones, with Macron on a Moroccan list of targets, according to Le Monde.
"It was agreed between the leaders that the subject will continue to be handled discreetly and professionally, and with the spirit of transparency between the two sides," the unnamed official said.
"We can assume this story is behind us" a political source was quoted saying. An official statement from the Prime Minister's Office said the meeting was "good and pleasant."