US bans trade with security firm NSO Group over Pegasus spyware (updated)

NSO is accused of enabling 'malicious' surveillance of activists.

REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Surveillance software developer NSO Group may have a very tough road ahead. The US Commerce Department has added NSO to its Entity List, effectively banning trade with the firm. The move bars American companies from doing business with NSO unless they receive explicit permission. That's unlikely, too, when the rule doesn't allow license exceptions for exports and the US will default to rejecting reviews.

NSO and fellow Israeli company Candiru (also on the Entity List) face accusations of enabling hostile spying by authoritarian governments. They've allegedly supplied spyware like NSO's Pegasus to "authoritarian governments" that used the tools to track activists, journalists and other critics in a bid to crush political dissent. This is part of the Biden-Harris administration's push to make human rights "the center" of American foreign policy, the Commerce Department said.

The latest round of trade bans also affects Russian company Positive Technologies and Singapore's Computer Security Initiative Consultancy, both of which were accused of peddling hacking tools.

We've asked NSO Group for comment, although its official media contact address produced an error. The company has strongly rejected claims of enabling abuses in the past, including denials that Pegasus was used to target murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. NSO said it had blocked access for previous abuses, and it even hired a libel attorney who accused investigative journalists and their partners of misinterpretation and making unfounded assumptions.

The Commerce Department claims to have evidence of NSO's actions, though. The net effect is the same. NSO isn't necessarily doomed. Like blocklist member Huawei, though, it may struggle to operate without access to any American partners it used before.

Update 11/3 12PM ET: An NSO Group spokesperson told Engadget the company was "dismayed" by the decision, and claimed its tools helped the US by "preventing terrorism and crime." NSO said it would call for a reversal of the ban and reiterated claims it had the "world’s most rigorous" human rights and compliance systems. You can read the full statement below.

NSO Group is dismayed by the decision given that our technologies support US national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime, and thus we will advocate for this decision to be reversed. We look forward to presenting the full information regarding how we have the world’s most rigorous compliance and human rights programs that are based the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products.