The decision comes as governments around the world face accusations of using spyware to target dissidents.
United States President Joe Biden has signed an executive order limiting the government’s use of commercial spyware technology used to target political dissidents around the world.
Monday’s move comes more than a year after the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Israeli spyware maker NSO Group, which has been at the forefront of global debate over spyware abuse. Its Pegasus software is linked to the surveillance of hundreds of political figures, journalists and human rights advocates.
“The misuse of these powerful surveillance tools is not limited to authoritarian regimes,” the White House said in a statement.
“Democratic governments have also faced revelations that actors within their systems have used commercial spyware to target their citizens without adequate legal authorization, safeguards and oversight.”
The order was announced as the US prepares to host a “democracy summit” later this week. It includes exceptions for government agencies to use spyware if the agency head determines that the software does not pose a counterintelligence or national security risk.
The ruling also does not cover spyware created by government institutions such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, both of which have a history of illegal surveillance activities.
However, rights groups have warned that commercial spyware has made surveillance tools more accessible. Countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been accused of using the software to target journalists and human rights groups.
THE LATEST news: 🇺🇸 @POTUS @White House issues an executive order: restricts the federal government from using commercial #spyware from vendors targeting US persons + facilitating human rights abuses / transnational repression…
— profdeibert (@RonDeibert) March 27, 2023
The White House also confirmed on Monday that US government personnel overseas were “targeted by commercial spyware” without providing details.
In December 2021, Reuters news agency reported that NSO Group software was used to hack the phones of at least nine US State Department staff members.
Privacy advocates welcomed Monday’s executive order. John Scott-Railton, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who has studied spyware, told The Associated Press that the U.S. had not previously “used its purchasing power to push the industry to be better.”