President Joe Biden has signed an executive order barring federal agencies from using commercial spyware technology that poses a counterintelligence or national security risk to the U.S.
Biden’s executive action seeks to “protect the safety and security of United States Government institutions, personnel, information, and information systems; discourage the improper use of commercial spyware; and encourage the development and implementation of responsible norms regarding the use of commercial spyware that are consistent with respect for the rule of law, human rights, and democratic norms and values.”
The executive order came as the White House acknowledged at least 50 U.S. government staffers in “at least 10 countries on multiple continents” were targeted with spyware attacks, which highlighted a growing threat from cyber vendors and prompted the White House to take action, Reuters reported.
“We have clearly identified the proliferation and misuse of spyware as a threat to national security,” an unnamed official within the Biden administration said. “The threat of misuse around the world also implicates our core foreign policy interests.”
The announcement comes after multiple reports highlighted a growing spyware threat from Israeli-based vendor NSO Group, which sells a mobile phone spyware package called “Pegasus.” Once the software infects a phone, governments can access a person’s phone conversations, photos, messages, location, and remotely access the microphone, turning the phone into a portable listening device.
A week before Biden’s executive order was signed, the New York Times reported on a separate spyware platform named “Predator,” which was developed in Greece and used in a yearlong espionage campaign against an employee who worked on Meta’s security and trust team.
In late 2021, the Biden administration placed NSO Group on a blacklist for having acted “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the U.S.” after the software was used by governments to spy on diplomats, dissidents, and journalists.
U.S. officials have yet to confirm the extent to which U.S. intelligence agencies have used spyware.
This week, Biden will co-host a “Summit for Democracy” where the issue of spyware is expected to be a topic of discussion.
Ron Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which investigates spyware abuses, said the new executive order will “make the very lucrative U.S. federal government market inaccessible to firms that present a national security risk and facilitate transnational repression and human rights violations abroad,” CNN reported.