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US voices concerns to Israel about NSO spyware

A woman checks the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on July 21, 2021. - Reports that Israel-made Pegasus spyware has been used to monitor activists, journalists and politicians around the world highlight the diplomatic risks of nurturing and exporting "oppressive technology", experts warned. Private Israeli firm NSO Group has denied media reports its Pegasus software is linked to the mass surveillance of journalists and rights defenders, and insisted that all sales of its technology are approved by Israel's defence ministry. (Photo by Mario GOLDMAN / AFP) (Photo by MARIO GOLDMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman checks the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on July 21, 2021 [MARIO GOLDMAN/AFP via Getty Images]

The US has raised concerns with Israel about an Israeli firm's spyware that has been used by governments to spy on rights activists, journalists and politicians, according to a recently released report, Anadolu Agency reports.

The Biden administration raised concerns directly with Israeli officials after Tel Aviv granted NSO Group licenses to export its Pegasus spyware to foreign governments, Axios reported on Wednesday.

The NSO Group has been linked to a list of tens of thousands of smartphone numbers, including those of activists, journalists, business executives and politicians around the world.

READ: Pegasus spyware and the consequences for privacy

The spyware is capable of switching on a phone's camera or microphone and harvesting its data. It first emerged in media reports in 2016 when researchers accused it of helping to spy on a dissident in the United Arab Emirates.

Other high-profile targets have included French President Emmanuel Macron and Pakistan's premier Imran Khan.

They are two of roughly 600 politicians caught up in the Pegasus controversy as Israel faces a diplomatic crisis.

Brett McGurk, US President Joe Biden's top Middle East aide, met last Thursday at the White House with a senior Israeli defense official to discuss the ongoing controversy, Axios reported, citing anonymous Israeli officials.

Zohar Palti reportedly sought to assure McGurk that Tel Aviv is taking the matter very seriously and is reviewing whether there were violations of its export licenses and if changes are needed to Israel's export regulations.

The meeting came amid mounting pressure in Congress for the Biden administration to sanction the NSO group.

READ: France's Macron asks for explanation from Israel premier about spyware on his phone

"Private companies should not be selling sophisticated cyber-intrusion tools on the open market, and the United States should work with its allies to regulate this trade. Companies that sell such incredibly sensitive tools to dictatorships are the A.Q. Khans of the cyber world," congress members Tom Malinowski, Katie Porter, Joaquin Castro and Anna Eshoo said in a joint statement.

They were referring to the Pakistani engineer who fathered Pakistan's nuclear weapons program in what was a major blow to international non-proliferation efforts.

"The NSO Group's denials are not credible, and show an arrogant disregard for concerns that elected officials, human rights activists, journalists, and cyber-security experts have repeatedly raised. The authoritarian governments purchasing spyware from private companies make no distinction between terrorism and peaceful dissent," they added.

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