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Israel Tightens Restrictions on Cyber Exports Over Concerns of Spyware Abuse

12-07-2021

JERUSALEM, Israel – Israel announced on Monday that it is enforcing stricter supervision over its cyber exports following several recent scandals alleging that Israeli-made surveillance technology has been used by human rights violators to target activists, journalists and political dissenters around the world. 

Israel’s Defense Ministry said countries that wish to purchase its cyber products must now sign a declaration promising that they will only be used “for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorism.”

It said countries that violate the agreement could be subject to sanctions, “including limiting the cyber system and/or disconnecting it.”

The move comes amid backlash over NSO Group, an Israeli hacker-for-hire company at the center of international controversy. It sells a military-grade surveillance technology called “Pegasus”, which installs itself on a phone without the user's knowledge and gives the hacker complete access to the entire contents of the phone, including the camera and microphone. 

CBN News previously reported on an investigation published in July by an international alliance of media outlets that accused the software of being abused by governments to spy on journalists, political dissidents, and human rights activists. 

The Defense Ministry’s announcement on Monday made no mention of NSO Group, but it came just days after reports that 11 US State Department employees were hacked with the Israeli-made spyware.

The employees were all located in Uganda and included some foreign service officers, a person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to speak publicly about an ongoing investigation told AP. 

It was the first known instance of NSO Group’snPegasus spyware being used against US government personnel. The reports exacerbated NSO Group’s already tense relationship with the US. 

Last month, the US Commerce Department blacklisted NSO and banned the company from using US technology.

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“We have been acutely concerned that commercial spyware like NSO Group’s software poses a serious counterintelligence and security risk to US personnel, which is one of the reasons why the Biden-Harris administration has placed several companies involved in the development and proliferation of these tools on the Department of Commerce’s Entity List,” the National Security Council said in a statement on Friday following the reports about State Department employees being hacked.

NSO Group has faced multiple legal challenges over its spyware technology. Apple sued the company last month, saying NSO Group engaged in “concerted efforts in 2021 to target and attack Apple customers, Apple products and servers and Apple through dangerous malware and spyware.”

In 2020, an Israeli court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Amnesty International over allegations that NSO Group’s technology was used to track one of Amnesty’s employees. The court ruled that the organization did not provide sufficient evidence to prove its claim.

Meanwhile, Facebook is suing NSO Group for allegedly targeting the globally popular encrypted WhatsApp messaging app. A US federal appeals court issued a ruling this month rejecting an effort by NSO Group to have the lawsuit thrown out.

NSO Group has denied all wrongdoing and insists it sells its technologies to governments only to battle crime and terrorism. However, Company officials have acknowledged cutting off several customers due to misuse.

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