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US blacklists Israeli firm NSO Group, maker of Pegasus spyware

Pegasus spyware sold by NSO Group has been engulfed in controversy over reports that tens of thousands of human rights activists, journalists, politicians, and business executives worldwide were hacked or listed as potential targets of its Pegasus software.

The US government has put Israeli firm NSO Group that works with anti-democratic government organisations, spy agencies, and authoritarian regimes to target journalists, politicians, corporate executives, and civil rights groups on a blacklist of restricted companies.

Pegasus sold by NSO Group has been engulfed in controversy over reports that tens of thousands of human rights activists, journalists, politicians, and business executives worldwide were hacked or listed as potential targets of its Pegasus software.

Pegasus-infected smartphones convert into pocket espionage devices that can read targets’ messages, browse at their images, track their location, and even turn on their cameras. Most of the authoritarian regimes and government agencies have been using it to suppress dissidents, journalists, and activists outside their borders, the US Commerce Department said while announcing the ban.

With this ban, now it will be harder for American companies or researchers to export or sell information or technology to NSO Group.

In a statement, NSO repeated its claim of its technologies support US national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime. “We will advocate for this decision to be reversed,” an NSO spokesperson told news agency AFP, adding its compliance controls have resulted in “multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products.”

Along with NSO Group, the US government also banned another Israeli company Candiru, Singapore-based Computer Security Initiative Consultancy PTE (COSEINC), and Russian firm Positive Technologies —  all have been part of trafficking in hacking tools and enabling repressing of journalist and opposition leaders across many democracies.

In India also, deadly spyware was used by NSO’s government client to target senior journalists, opposition leaders, and civil society groups.

Recently, the Supreme Court had ordered a “thorough inquiry” into allegations of unauthorised surveillance using the Pegasus spyware to be conducted by a three-member technical committee headed by Justice R V Raveendran, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, who is being assisted by two other experts. The committee has been asked to conduct the inquiry and submit its report to the Supreme Court “expeditiously”.

The apex court made it clear that the State cannot get “a free pass every time the spectre of ‘national security is raised”.

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