U.S. Government Takes Stand Against Commercial Spyware As Biden Signs Executive Order

In a ground-breaking move, President Joe Biden signed an executive order banning the American government from using commercial spyware that poses national security risks or has been used by foreign actors to enable human rights violations. The White House announced this initiative ahead of the second Biden-sponsored Democracy Summit, which takes place amidst tensions in Ukraine and protests in Israel. The White House stated that the executive order demonstrates American leadership and commitment to advancing technology for democracy. The order will also serve as a basis for deepening international cooperation to promote the responsible use of surveillance technology, counter its proliferation and misuse, and stimulate sector reform.

An article titled “US to adopt new restrictions on using commercial spyware” by Nomaan Merchant on TechXplore explains how last year Congress mandated that American intelligence agencies investigate the use of spyware abroad and gave the Office of the Director of National Intelligence the authority to forbid any agency from using commercial programs. Commercial spyware, which allows remote access to electronic devices and extraction of their content without the knowledge or consent of users, has proliferated in recent years with few regulations; this creates increasing risks to the security and integrity of American government information systems and to the protection of personnel abroad, who have been targeted before. The White House also warned that foreign governments are increasingly using commercial spyware to facilitate repression and enable human rights abuses; this includes using such technology to intimidate political opponents, curb dissent, restrict freedom of expression, and monitor and target activists and journalists. The abuse of such technology is not limited to authoritarian regimes, as even democratic governments have faced revelations that actors within their systems have used commercial spyware to target their citizens without proper legal authorization, safeguards, and oversight.

Pegasus is a type of spyware created by the Israeli company NSO Group that has been the subject of debate for many years. The software is renowned for its advanced features, which enable users to remotely access electronic devices, extract their content, and change their components without the owner’s knowledge or approval. Many governments worldwide, including Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, have utilized Pegasus to track and target activists, journalists, and political opponents. Moreover, the software has been connected to human rights violations, including the murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Moreover, the software was recently discovered to have been used to target American civil servants, including diplomats and national security officials; this has raised serious concerns about the use of such technology and the need for greater oversight and regulation.

The ban on the use of commercial spyware by the American government sends a clear message to organizations like NSO that their behaviour will not be accepted and there will be repercussions for the abuse of such technology. This significant action conveys a strong message to other countries and corporations: the White House describes this executive order as a powerful and audacious initiative that will advance democratic technology and strengthen international cooperation on reforming surveillance technologies.

Numerous steps can be taken to peacefully oppose commercial spyware. On computers and mobile devices, installing trustworthy anti-virus and anti-malware software can assist in identifying and obstructing spyware. Fixing any vulnerabilities that spyware might exploit is also essential, beside regularly updating the operating system and other software programs. Moreover, it is vital to search for apps and services that prioritise privacy and security, such as VPN services and apps for encrypted texting. Consistently avoid clicking on links from unfamiliar sources or opening strange email attachments, and keep a close eye on your online accounts for any suspicious behaviour or unauthorized access: notify the appropriate authorities of any such activity! It is imperative to urge governments and regulatory bodies to impose stricter regulations on the use and distribution of commercial spyware, just as the US government has now done.