Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz
President Joe Biden confers with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, May 21, 2023.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday announced he was implementing a new policy allowing the imposition of visa restrictions on individuals involved in the misuse of commercial spyware.

In recent years, Israeli companies selling military-grade spyware and hacking technologies to distinctly non-democratic states the world over has attracted enormous negative attention, with Israel’s NSO Group products like Pegasus and Phantom being targeted by the US government and major corporations like Apple.


The new US policy could potentially subject Israelis in the hi-tech sector to fresh sanctions, irrespective of whether they received the authorization of the Israeli government.

Haaretz journalist Omer Benjakob on Tuesday quoted a senior leading figure in Israeli cyber intelligence who believes the attack is intended to destroy Israel’s ability to trade in specialized hi-tech in the US and consequently severely damage the Israeli economy, all in an effort to bring down Netanyahu.

The same source said he and his peers “all agreed that the announcement had less to do with spyware and more with sending a message to Netanyahu. Precisely like the reports on the US withholding ammunition, imposing sanctions on settlers, this is another case of the US trying to create leverage on Israel and pressure the Netanyahu government to agree to American terms.”

This new policy is the most recent action in the United States’ comprehensive approach to countering the misuse of commercial spyware,” reads Blinken’s statement. “Previous actions have included the issuance of an Executive Order prohibiting the US government’s use of commercial spyware that poses risks to US national security or foreign policy interests, Department of Commerce entity listings of commercial spyware companies that enabled the abuse of sophisticated surveillance tools, and diplomacy to boost international cooperation, including through the US-led Joint Statement on Efforts to Counter the Proliferation and Misuse of Commercial Spyware.”

Benjakob quotes another senior Israeli hi-tech industry executive who believes that, although this and similar aggressive US restrictions on the hi-tech industry have also targeted China, the main target of Blinken’s Monday announcement was Israel. “The Americans understand that these tools are critical to the war effort and therefore Israel, which can’t allow itself to lose its offensive cyber edge right now, will have to go to them and discuss [the matter] now,” the source asserted.

Following the Biden administration’s decision to blacklist companies such as NSO and Candiru in late 2021, Israel reportedly revised its list of nations eligible to receive exported spyware, along with implementing a more stringent protocol for granting export licenses.

This move slowed down the progress of Israeli spyware makers, at a time when the country’s economy needed their tax revenues most during the pandemic, and while the market for spyware and hacking tools was growing at a fast pace, leaving the Israelis behind.

According to Benjakob, recent years have seen an increase in the number of spyware and hacking tech companies that are owned by Israelis but are registered in Cyprus, Greece, Singapore, Italy, and the US.


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