US welcomes new governments in fight against spyware as it finds more American personnel have been targeted

US Embraces New Allies in Battle Against Spyware Amid Rising Attacks on American Personnel

The Biden administration has recently extended an invitation to six additional countries to join a US-led initiative aimed at combating the misuse of phone-hacking spyware. This move comes as US officials reveal ongoing efforts to uncover more instances where American government workers have been targeted by this technology, which poses significant threats to national security and counterintelligence.

Officials from the US National Security Council are diligently working to identify and verify more incidents involving US government employees being compromised by commercially available spyware. Over the past year, the number of US government personnel suspected or confirmed to have been targeted by spyware has increased from an initial count of 50, as reported by an NSC official. However, the exact increase in cases remains undisclosed, with the official emphasizing the persistent high risks to counterintelligence and national security.

Spyware, a type of malicious software designed to infiltrate mobile phones, transforms these devices into eavesdropping tools and extracts contact information. The commercial spyware market has seen rapid growth over the past decade, with companies from countries like Israel and North Macedonia offering their services to eager government buyers.

A central aspect of the US strategy to counter spyware involves persuading allied nations to avoid doing business with spyware firms known for targeting US diplomats or monitoring dissidents and journalists within the US. Poland and Ireland, both previously implicated in spyware misuse, are among the new signatories of the anti-spyware agreement. This development is hailed by US officials as a sign of increasing global commitment to addressing the widespread abuse of surveillance technology.

Additionally, Finland, Germany, Japan, and South Korea have pledged to join the fight against spyware, as announced by the White House. This announcement is set to be made at the Summit for Democracy in Seoul, an annual event that gathers democratic governments worldwide.

Last year, eleven countries, including the US and its “Five Eyes” allies, signed a pledge asserting that any use of commercial spyware by their governments would adhere to universal human rights, the rule of law, and civil liberties. This commitment came after senior counterintelligence and national security officials raised alarms over the targeting of numerous US government personnel by invasive commercial spyware, including State Department employees in Africa hacked with software developed by the Israeli firm NSO Group.

The use of spyware against US personnel by foreign governments aims to gather intelligence from targeted phones or surveil individuals from their own countries meeting with US diplomats. The NSC official refrained from naming the governments involved but highlighted the significant risks posed by some spyware vendors’ close relationships or direct control by foreign governments.

US intelligence agencies have reported that at least 74 countries have engaged private firms to acquire commercial spyware. In response, the US government initiated a comprehensive study to assess the risk of spyware to US interests and investigate whether US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have contracted with spyware firms used by other governments to surveil US diplomats.

The Biden administration’s review found no widespread use of commercial spyware within the federal government. However, officials expressed concern over spyware vendors’ aggressive marketing of their hacking tools to various US agencies. For example, the FBI confirmed purchasing a testing license for NSO Group’s Pegasus software but stated it has not been used in investigations.

To address concerns about the potential use of commercial spyware by US government agencies, the White House issued an executive order last year prohibiting agencies from using spyware considered a national security threat or implicated in human rights abuses. The NSC official warned allies about the visibility of spyware tool usage, citing the FBI’s acquisition of a Pegasus test license and reports of its use by other governments on US diplomats as an example.

Despite sanctions and visa restrictions imposed on spyware vendors and prohibitions on US companies doing business with them, the Biden administration acknowledges the challenges in significantly impacting the profitable spyware market. Spyware companies often operate through complex corporate structures to remain in business, a tactic known to US officials and researchers. This month, White House officials met with US venture capital firms to caution them about the risks of their investments potentially supporting the growth of spyware.

The NSC official expressed concern over the flow of capital into the spyware industry, highlighting the potential risks to Americans that investors might not be aware of.