Blacklisting Is Not Enough: Democrats Want Sanctions on Israeli Spyware Firm NSO

In letters sent to senior Biden officials, four Democratic lawmakers demanded more steps be taken against companies like Israel's NSO and Candiru, following their recent blacklisting by the Commerce Department

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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The lawmakers praised the action already taken by the administration, but called for more steps against such companies Credit: AMIR COHEN / REUTERS
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers urged the Biden administration to take further action against Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, days after the company was blacklisted alongside fellow Israeli spyware firm Candiru.

The two companies were added on November 3 to the “Entity List” of foreign companies engaging in malicious cyber activities contrary to the United States’ national security or foreign policy interests.

A group of Democrats in the House, Tom Malinowski, Katie Porter, Joaquin Castro, and Anna Eshoo, who led the push for the administration to act against NSO following investigative reporting into its Pegasus spyware, praised the administration for blacklisting the firms as a victory for human rights in their joint statement.

The blacklisting signaled that “the U.S. government is ready to take strong action to stop U.S. 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 U.S. interests and ideals,” they stated.

There is “no reason why U.S. technology providers should be exporting assistance to companies like NSO Group,” the representatives stated. They urge the administration to instate “a sanctions regime to hold individuals and companies accountable for selling these tools to authoritarian states.”

A man reading at the NSO Group Technologies stand at the European Police Congress in Berlin, February 2020Credit: Hannibal Hanschke/REUTERS

The representatives explain that the entity would curtail exports by U.S. companies in support of NSO Group, but would not limit financing for the company by American investment funds “that have been complicit in the company’s abusive business model.” They therefore called on the administration to work with allies to reach multilateral agreements that would stop investors in democratic countries from subsidizing companies selling “hack-for-hire weapons on the open market,” the representatives stated.

Writing separate letters to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the four lawmakers explain that the entity listing of NSO Group and Candiru “do not eliminate the risk that U.S. investors remain complicit in the companies’ past and ongoing exports.” The administration could additionally consider NSO Group’s clients for sanction under the Global Magnitsky Act, informing investors of risks related to the export of items and services with surveillance capabilities, and develop a broader list of such items subject to U.S. control that could be used to abuse human rights.

They also called for the State Department and the Commerce Department to continue cooperating on monitoring countries likely using such surveillance capabilities to violate human rights, to regularly report foreign companies engaged in such behavior throughout the federal government, and to use all available diplomatic tools to publicize and deter the sale of such surveillance tools.

“When U.S. investors prop up companies like NSO Group, this implies the assent of the U.S. government, encouraging such companies to continue providing dangerous tools like Pegasus to the most repressive governments. Conversely, when the United States responsibly uses its markets and trade regulations to defend human rights, authoritarian governments take note and the international norms to which our nation is committed are strengthened,” they wrote.

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