In a bid to combat the global proliferation of commercial spyware, the United States has introduced a comprehensive plan aimed at limiting visas for individuals involved in both the abuse and manufacture of encryption-breaking malware, as per reports from the Financial Times (FT).
This initiative targets the widespread problem of spyware, a lucrative industry linked to the suppression of dissenters on a global scale.
The US State Department disclosed on Monday that the visa restrictions specifically focus on manufacturers who profit from selling high-grade spyware to countries known for its misuse. Key Accountability Measure: Visa Restrictions Targeting Manufacturers
As outlined in the FT report, these new visa restrictions build upon a March 2022 executive order that barred US government agencies from procuring spyware from manufacturers accused of supplying to countries misusing such technology.
The US State Department underscores that this measure aims to hold spyware manufacturers accountable, particularly those accused of benefiting financially from selling their technology to countries involved in abuse.
Recognizing the global reach of the spyware industry and its implications for national security, the US government views it as a significant threat.
By March 2023, at least 50 government employees stationed abroad were found to have been covertly surveilled through spyware, prompting concerns regarding counterintelligence.
A senior US official cited by FT stressed the importance of travel to the United States for individuals in the spyware sector, underlining the necessity for accountability among those involved in misuse or facilitating misuse.
Taking a firmer stance, the Biden administration is prioritizing action against spyware manufacturers to prevent their products from falling into the wrong hands.
Most notably, companies like Israel’s NSO Group have come under intense scrutiny. Israel, regarding spyware as a weapon, imposes regulations on its sale to allies.
Despite efforts such as the US government’s blacklisting and executive orders, their effectiveness in preventing spyware deployment against dissidents and human rights advocates remains uncertain.
Recent reports of individuals in Jordan targeted with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware highlight ongoing challenges and raise questions about the broader impact of these policies.
The US Commerce Department’s blacklisting of NSO Group, combined with the 2022 executive order, played a crucial role in thwarting a potential sale of the company to a US defense contractor, limiting its access to crucial dealings with US-based companies.
While NSO continues its operations, competitors have emerged in European Union countries.
The US official, speaking to FT, refrained from specifying the impact on individual countries or entities but emphasized the message being conveyed to those involved in both the misuse and facilitation of spyware misuse.
Despite concerted efforts by the US government, challenges persist in preventing spyware misuse. Recent findings of targets in Jordan, including Human Rights Watch researchers and a prominent radio journalist, underscore the ongoing struggles faced by dissidents and activists.
According to US officials, the implementation of visa restrictions on spyware abusers and manufacturers sends a significant signal, not only to those directly engaged in the misuse of spyware but also to individuals enabling such misuse.