US President Joe Biden signed a ban on the government’s use of commercial spyware technology, spearheading its use in political repression in countries around the world. The ban was announced a day before the second Democracy Summit, which will invite leaders from 121 countries to attend the three-day event. The White House called the ban on commercial spyware a “cornerstone” initiative for the summit. In addition, the White House said commercial spyware posed a clear intelligence threat to the United States and was found on the phones of 50 US officials abroad.
Background and purpose of the ban
Commercial spyware is a tool often used by authoritarian governments to facilitate oppression and human rights abuses. Democratic governments have also faced revelations that actors have used commercial spyware in their systems to target their citizens without proper legal authorization, safeguards, and oversight. Abuse of these powerful surveillance tools has prompted Biden’s administration to ban commercial spyware for all programs deemed a US security risk or used by other governments for political abuse.
Scope of the ban
The Biden administration’s order is not a total ban on commercial spyware, but applies to all programs deemed a US security risk or used by other governments for political abuse. Nor did it restrict spyware developed by US government agencies themselves, such as the CIA or the National Security Agency, the leading electronic intelligence agency. No specific names were named in the announcement, but the US government has already taken action to prevent the use of several programs and companies considered threatening. In November, the Ministry of Commerce blacklisted four spyware developers, including Israeli firms NRO Group and Candiru, Positive Technologies of Russia and Singapore’s Computer Security Initiative Consultancy.
The commercial spyware threat
According to a senior Biden administration official, the most menacing software is capable of scraping all data from remotely commanded and controlled target devices. Pegasus, created by NRO Group, has been used by governments and other entities in Mexico, Poland, Spain, Hungary, Bahrain, India and elsewhere. The official also revealed that commercial spyware vendors were attempting to gain a foothold across the US federal government, marketing and selling their tools across the federal government. Therefore, the administration deliberately announced publicly that it would pursue such a ban.
Banning commercial spyware is an important step taken by the Biden administration to protect against abuse of powerful surveillance tools. The ban is not just limited to authoritarian regimes, but also applies to democratic governments that use commercial spyware without proper legal approval, protections, and oversight. The order demonstrates the leadership and commitment of the United States in advancing technology for democracy. Banning commercial spyware is a “cornerstone” initiative for the summit and is likely to prompt other nations to follow suit.