A new report has shown that the infamous commercial spyware developer, Pegasus Spyware, has been spending millions of dollars lobbying the US government to remove itself from a trade blacklist.
Who is responsible for Pegasus Spyware?
Pegasus Spyware is owned by NSO Group, an Israeli firm that has been involved in lawsuits with both Whatsapp and Apple. The spyware is delivered via zero-click exploits and is claimed to have been used by various autocracies in order to spy on thousands of targets, including heads of state, journalists, political dissidents, and human rights activists.
NSO Group has always denied that its malware is used to commit human rights abuses and claims that it sells products solely for legitimate law enforcement purposes. In 2019, the NSO Group was taken to court by Whatsapp over allegations that the Israeli firm had helped develop and deploy malware that was used to target its users.
NSO Group was added to a US export blacklist in 2021, which means it is prevented from purchasing tech components from American companies, but a report from Open Secrets shows that the organization has been attempting to influence US government thinking.
Based on Foreign Agents Registration Act disclosure filed with the Justice Department, the report has revealed that foreign agents were paid over $2.9 million in return for work lobbying in the US from 2020 onwards.
This included a $1.1 million outlay on both law firms and PR companies – the report claims that this amount is more than the amount that the government of Israel spent on lobbying the US during the same period.
The NSO Group faced a lawsuit from Whatsapp in 2019, who took them to court over allegations that the Israeli firm had developed and helped to deploy malware that was then used to target its users. The Supreme Court gave approval for the case to continue earlier in 2023. Apple followed with a lawsuit of its own in 2021, claiming that they were taking legal action in order to “prevent further abuse and harm”.
At the time of the suit, Apple claimed that they would be seeking a permanent injunction banning NSO Group from using its products and services, in order to “prevent further abuse and harm”. The wider tech industry has also announced a new initiative that is designed to push back against what it describes as “cyber mercenaries” and help conserve information security.
The White House has also become increasingly hostile towards commercial spyware makers. A new executive order announced in March bans the US government from using any tools that have previously been misused by foreign states to spy on citizens, dissidents, activists, or any devices that pose a threat to counterintelligence, security risk, or information security.