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Govts used it to snoop, says US, as it blacklists Pegasus-maker NSO

The US Department of Commerce, in a statement, said the NSO Group and Candiru, another Israeli company, were added to the Entity List.

Written by Krishn Kaushik | New Delhi |
Updated: November 4, 2021 8:07:30 am
Govts used it to snoop, says US, as it blacklists Pegasus-maker NSOAn aerial view shows the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel. (Reuters)

Israel’s NSO Group, at the centre of a storm ever since a global investigation revealed that its Pegasus spyware was allegedly used to target journalists, human rights activists, Opposition leaders across the world, was brought under export controls by the Biden administration Wednesday.

The US Department of Commerce, in a statement, said the NSO Group and Candiru, another Israeli company, were added to the Entity List “based on evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics, and embassy workers”.

These tools, the Department of Commerce said, 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” and that such practices “threaten the rules-based international order”.

The action by the US government, it stated, is part of “efforts to put human rights at the centre of US foreign policy, including by working to stem the proliferation of digital tools used for repression” and is “aimed at improving citizens’ digital security, combating cyber threats, and mitigating unlawful surveillance”.

The statement said Positive Technologies (Russia) and Computer Security Initiative Consultancy Pte Ltd (Singapore) too were added to the Entity List which limits their access to US components and technology by requiring government permission for exports.

It quoted US Secretary of Commerce Gina M Raimondo: “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.”

A week ago, the Supreme Court ordered a “thorough inquiry” into allegations of unauthorised surveillance using the Pegasus spyware in India. Ordering the probe, a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana made it clear that the State cannot get “a free pass every time the spectre of ‘national security’ is raised”.

Three editors of The Indian Express — two current and one former — were among over 40 journalists and more than 100 others whose phone numbers figured in a leaked list of potential targets of surveillance by an “unidentified agency,” using the Pegasus spyware, The Wire had reported as part of a global investigation, drawing on data accessed by Paris-based Forbidden Stories. Among the phones targeted were those of Rahul Gandhi, Ashwani Vaishnaw, Prashant Kishor, Abhishek Banerjee, Prahlad Patel, Ashok Lavasa and Rakesh Asthana.

A day after the Supreme Court ordered a probe, Naor Gilon, Israel’s new ambassador to India, declined to be drawn into the issue, calling it an “internal” matter of India.

Asked whether the embassy or the Israeli government will cooperate with the committee tasked by the Supreme

Court to conduct an inquiry, Gilon said: “NSO, very simply and I will not go into more details, is a private Israeli company. Every export of NSO needs a licence from the Israeli government. We grant the export licence only for exporting to governments. This is the only and the main requirement, they cannot sell it to non-governmental actors.”

“What is happening here in India is a really internal thing of India, and I would rather not go into your internal affairs,” he said.

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