The Biden administration has issued an executive order that will allow US government agencies to ban spyware from vendors whose products have been found to have contributed to human rights abuses, been used to target US citizens, or against activists and journalists. The order aims to use the government’s power as a major consumer of defence products to encourage surveillance firms to behave ethically or face blacklisting. The proliferation of commercial spyware and the lack of controls and high likelihood of abuse pose distinct and growing counterintelligence and security risks, the White House noted. Though the US government is not banning the use of commercial spyware, it is focusing on curtailing vendors that have undertaken activities that are deemed troubling from a human rights perspective.
The announcement follows revelations that dozens of US officials have been targeted using commercial spyware in recent years. A senior US administration official described as many as 50 Americans as suspected, or confirmed, to have been the focus of such attacks. Previously, previous reporting had suggested that only a handful of American diplomats in foreign countries had been the targets.
The action taken by the Biden administration is the latest in a series of regulatory and legislative efforts it is pursuing to crack down on the commercial spyware industry. To this end, it has introduced new regulatory guidelines and efforts to shift export controls. Additionally, the NSO Group has been blacklisted, one of the most controversial vendors in the spyware industry.
This week, the administration will organise a “Summit for Democracy” with officials from various countries. It is intended that the new executive order is an example of an initiative advancing technology in a way that aligns with the summit’s values of promoting democracy through technology.