The US House intelligence blocks spyware targeting the country’s diplomats

The chairman of the US House intelligence committee said that hackers are using commercial spyware to breach phones that belonged to US officials stationed abroad. According to the report of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, government hackers are infiltrating the phones of US diplomats stationed in Uganda using spyware named Pegasus which is developed by the Israeli vendor NSO Group, an Israeli tech firm to help government agencies detect and prevent a wide range of global threats.

The chairman of the House intelligence said in a committee on commercial surveillance technology, “It is my belief that we are very likely looking at the tip of the iceberg, and that other US government personnel have had their devices compromised, whether by a nation-state using NSO’s services or tools offered by one of its lesser known but equally potent competitors.” The Biden administration has recognized the use of the most sophisticated spyware, Pegasus, which is being used to target US officials’ messages, cameras, and microphones without the victim clicking any phishing link or running malware on their device.

In a clear revelation, the intelligence committee also mentioned the use of a second hacking tool, named Predator, built by another Israeli company, Cytrox Ltd. Both Pegasus and Predator have been observed to target the phones of US officials.

A researcher from the Citizen Lab, a cyber security firm said, “I see the threat proliferation as inevitable, ” and this could target beyond the nation-state in an “out of control” fashion. According to a statement provided by a US citizen named Carine Kanimba, her father saved several Rwandan people from a genocide conducted in 1994. He was abducted in Dubai after being lured from his house in Texas and was found imprisoned in Rwanda. It was found that his phone was targeted by NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to locate his whereabouts.

A spokesperson of NSO Group said that they can not target citizens of the US as the spyware can not be operated in the US and it was created to help the government. However, if it is observed to conduct any illegal operations, its contract can be terminated by the government with immediate effect.

Officials from Microsoft Corp. said that spyware vendors are selling their tools to authoritarian governments, “For there to be real change, the United States will need to help advance global norms on surveillance software and the protection of human rights and privacy.”

However, the US Department of Commerce will block four companies including NSO Group from accessing the devices under US technology. According to the spokesperson of the National Security Council, the US is trying to counter and ban all foreign commercial spyware tools before being misused.

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