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US lawmakers call on Biden administration to sanction Israeli spyware firm NSO Group

18 Democrats ask Treasury and State Department to freeze bank accounts of company executives amid claims they helped authoritarian regimes commit human rights abuses

In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, an Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)
In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, an Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)

A group of Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday asked the Biden administration to impose financial sanctions on controversial Israel spyware firm NSO Group and a number of other surveillance companies, citing reports that they helped authoritarian regimes commit human rights abuses.

A letter sent by 18 Senate and House members, including Senate Finance Committee chairman Ron Wyden and House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, asks the Treasury Department and State Department to sanction NSO, along with the United Arab Emirates cybersecurity company DarkMatter and European online bulk surveillance companies Nexa Technologies and Trovicor, Reuters reported Wednesday.

The letter says the companies facilitated the “disappearance, torture and murder of human rights activists and journalists” and asks for the application of “Global Magnitsky” sanctions, which would freeze bank accounts of company executives and ban travel to the United States.

“To meaningfully punish them and send a clear signal to the surveillance technology industry, the US government should deploy financial sanctions,” the group of Democrats wrote.

NSO Group has come under intense global scrutiny for its Pegasus software, considered one of the most powerful cyber-surveillance tools available on the market. The technology was used to target journalists, activists and politicians in dozens of countries, as revealed in a major in-depth investigation by major media outlets and nonprofits around the world.

According to the reporting, more than 1,000 people across over 50 countries were traced to numbers on the list, including several heads of state and prime ministers, Arab royal family members, business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, and more than 600 politicians and government officials.

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

While the company maintained that the software was only meant to assist countries in fighting crime and terrorism, and despite the Israeli government lobbying on its behalf, the US Department of Commerce nevertheless blacklisted NSO, apparently because its software was used to target US diplomats working in Uganda.

The Pegasus technology allows operators to effectively take full control of a target’s phone, download all data from the device, and activate its camera or microphone without the user knowing.

Speaking to Reuters, Wyden said, “These surveillance mercenaries sold their services to authoritarian regimes with long records of human rights abuses, giving vast spying powers to tyrants.”

He charged that “those nations used surveillance tools to lock up, torture and murder reporters and human rights advocates. The Biden administration has the chance to turn off the spigot of American dollars and help put them out of business for good.”

In December, Israel’s Defense Ministry imposed new restrictions on the export of cyber-warfare tools following the major international backlash over the use of Israeli-made surveillance software such as Pegasus.

The Defense Ministry also dramatically scaled back the number of countries to which Israeli companies are allowed to sell cyber technologies, a list that consisted of 37 countries, which was down from 102 originally.

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