A woman checks the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office in the Cypriot capital Nicosia in July 2021 [File: Mario Goldman/AFP]
United States President Joe Biden has signed an executive order restricting the government’s use of commercial spyware technology that has been utilised to target political dissent around the globe.
The move on Monday comes more than a year after the Biden administration imposed sanctions on the Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO Group, which has been at the forefront of global discussions of spyware abuse. Its Pegasus software has been linked to the surveillance of hundreds of political figures, journalists and human rights advocates.
“Misuse of these powerful surveillance tools has not been limited to authoritarian regimes,” the White House said in a statement.
“Democratic governments also have confronted revelations that actors within their systems have used commercial spyware to target their citizens without proper legal authorization, safeguards and oversight.”
The order was announced as the US prepares to host a “summit for democracy” later this week. It includes exceptions for government agencies to use spyware programmes if the agency head determines that the software does not pose a counterintelligence or national security risk.
The decision also does not apply to spyware created by government institutions such as the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, both of which have histories of unlawful surveillance activities.
However, human rights groups have warned that commercial spyware has made surveillance tools more widely available. Countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been accused of using the software to target journalists and human rights groups.
The White House also confirmed on Monday that US government personnel abroad “have been targeted by commercial spyware” without providing details.
In December 2021, the news agency Reuters reported that NSO Group software had been used to hack the phones of at least nine staff members at the US Department of State.
Privacy advocates have welcomed Monday’s executive order. John Scott-Railton, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who has studied spyware, told the Associated Press that the US had not previously “wielded its purchasing power to push the industry to do better”.