U.S. lawmakers ask Treasury Department to sanction Israeli spyware firm

U.S. lawmakers ask Treasury Department to sanction Israeli spyware firm

WASHINGTON Reuters - A group of U.S. lawmakers are asking the Treasury Department and State Department to sanction Israeli spyware firm NSO Group and three other foreign surveillance companies that they say helped authoritarian governments commit human rights abuses.

Their letter sent late Tuesday and seen by Reuters, asks for sanctions on top executives at the NSO, the United Arab Emirates cybersecurity company DarkMatter, and European online bulk surveillance companies Nexa Technologies and Trovicor.

The lawmakers asked for Global Magnitsky sanctions, which punishes those who are accused of enabling human rights abuses by freezing bank accounts and banning travel to the United States.

DarkMatter could not be reached for comment. The three other companies did not respond to requests for comment.

The letter was signed by the Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and 16 other Democratic lawmakers. They cite a recent Reuters article this month showing that NSO spyware was used against State Department employees in Uganda.

The lawmakers said that the spyware industry relies on U.S. investment and banks. They wrote that the U.S. government should use financial sanctions to send a clear signal to the surveillance technology industry to send a clear signal to the surveillance technology industry.

The letter says the companies facilitated the disappearance, torture and murder of human rights activists and journalists. Surveillance firms have been under scrutiny from Washington as a result of the media reports that they have been linked to human rights abuses.

Wyden said these surveillance mercenaries sold their services to authoritarian regimes with long histories of human rights abuses, giving them vast spying powers to tyrants. The 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 put them out of business for good. In November, the Commerce Department put NSO on the Entity List, which prohibits US suppliers from selling software or services to the Israeli spyware maker without special permission.

The industry is hampered by a number of legal challenges. A prominent Saudi activist and the Non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation sued DarkMatter last week, alleging the group hacked into her phone.

In November, Apple sued NSO Group, saying that it was in violation of U.S. laws by breaking into the software installed on iPhones.

A Reuters investigation cited in the letter showed a secret hacking unit within DarkMatter, known as Project Raven, which helped the UAE spy on its enemies. Three of the three members of the unit, all former U.S. intelligence operatives, admitted to breaking hacking laws in a September settlement with the Justice Department.