NOW: 50 U.S. Government Employees Targeted

( – At least 50 U.S. government employees in over ten countries had their mobile phones attacked by commercial spyware. As the investigation goes on, this number is expected to increase. Because of this, the White House has announced a new executive order to stop the U.S. government from using commercial spyware that could harm national security and human rights.

This order comes after a controversy about the misuse of powerful spyware called Pegasus. Foreign governments have used Pegasus to hack journalists, activists, and dissidents worldwide. The U.S. government is also co-hosting a global Summit for Democracy this week.

In late 2021, Apple told around 12 U.S. Embassy employees in Uganda that their iPhones were hacked using Pegasus. This military-grade spyware was created by an Israel-based company called NSO Group. The spyware lets users steal digital files, listen to conversations, and track the movements of targets. It often works through “zero-click” malware, which doesn’t need the target to click on a link.

The Biden administration was shocked by the number of government employees affected. One senior administration official said they had a feeling that this spyware could cause security risks, but they didn’t realize how severe those risks were.

The investigation is still going on, and more cases might be found. The government is taking steps to reduce the risks caused by these tools.

The executive order was created after the Commerce Department put NSO Group on a trade blacklist called the Entity List over a year ago. This move stopped the export of any hardware or software from the U.S. to NSO, cutting off a major source of technology and warning potential investors. NSO Group said that its human rights policies are based on American values, and they have ended contracts when misuse is discovered.

But NSO Group is just one of many companies that produce spyware. Most of these companies aren’t as big or well-known as NSO Group and often operate without regulation. John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, said the order is a good step towards setting up international rules.

The order stops federal agencies from using commercial spyware if it has been used to hack or target U.S. government devices or personnel or if it has been used to abuse human rights. It applies to spyware made by foreign or American companies so that companies can’t just move to the U.S. to avoid the restrictions.

There is an exception for spyware that might be needed for U.S. agencies to develop defensive cyber measures or test ways to defeat hackers.

Last year, the FBI was criticized for considering using Pegasus. However, the FBI director said they only bought a license for Pegasus to evaluate it and never actually used it.

The new order has been called a “really good step forward” by a top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. It’s an important first step in working with partners worldwide to stop the misuse of technology and the growth of “digital authoritarianism.”

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