The Israeli firm is behind the Pegasus phone hacking spyware that has reportedly been used around the world to break into the phones of human rights activists, journalists and politicians.

Smartphones infected with Pegasus become pocket spies, giving the user access to the target's messages, photos, camera, and location without them knowing.
Smartphones infected with Pegasus become pocket spies, giving the user access to the target's messages, photos, camera, and location without them knowing. (JOEL SAGET / AFP)

US authorities have put the Israeli maker of the Pegasus spyware on a list of restricted companies, taking aim at software central to a scandal over surveillance of journalists and officials.

The US Commerce Department said on Wednesday that NSO Group is being added to the “entity list,” which limits its access to US components and technology by requiring government permission for exports. 

“The United States is committed to aggressively using export controls to hold companies accountable that develop, traffic, or use technologies to conduct malicious activities that threaten the cybersecurity of members of civil society, dissidents, government officials, and organisations here and abroad,” US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

NSO fired back at the decision, saying its "technologies support US national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime."

"We will advocate for this decision to be reversed," a NSO spokesperson said.

Washington also targeted Israeli company Candiru, Singapore-based Computer Security Initiative Consultancy PTE (COSEINC) and Russian firm Positive Technologies.

The department said putting these companies on the entity list was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to promote human rights in US foreign policy.

READ MORE: How NSO spyware became a favourite espionage tool for autocratic regimes

Pegasus hacking tool

The company, NSO, was engulfed in controversy over reports that tens of thousands of human rights activists, journalists, politicians and business executives worldwide were listed as potential targets of its Pegasus software.

Smartphones infected with Pegasus are essentially turned into pocket spying devices, allowing the user to read the target's messages, look through their photos, track their location and even turn on their camera without them knowing.

Critics say the widespread availability of software like Pegasus now allows even cash-strapped authoritarian governments to effectively purchase their own answer to the United States' National Security Agency, with highly invasive surveillance powers.

While companies offering such technology have sprung up around the world, several have been founded in Israel, drawing recruits from the military intelligence elite.

Israel's defence establishment has set up a committee to review NSO's business, including the process through which export licenses are granted.

NSO has insisted its software is intended for use only in fighting terrorism and other crimes and says it exports to 45 countries.

READ MORE: Israeli company sold malware to spy on journalists, activists – report

Source: TRTWorld and agencies