US to restrict visas for those who misuse commercial spyware

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Ivory Coast
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By Christopher Bing and Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Monday announced a new visa restriction policy for those it said were misusing commercial spyware.

The policy announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken will allow the State Department to impose visa restrictions for individuals believed to have been involved in the abuse of commercial spyware, as well as for those who facilitate such actions and benefit from it.

U.S. officials say the new policy is part of a wider effort to shape the behavior of foreign governments and individual companies that are involved in malicious digital espionage activities. Historically, these companies have been accused of developing platforms that facilitated hacks against human rights activists, journalists and opposition politicians in the developing world.

The new policy will also apply to investors and operators of the commercial spyware believed to be misused, a senior Biden administration official said. At least 50 U.S. officials have been targeted by private hacking tools in recent years, they added.

President Joseph Biden signed an executive order last year to curb the malicious use of digital spy tools around the globe that target U.S. personnel and civil society. The order barred U.S. agencies from doing business with such companies, limiting their business potential.

The Commerce Department also added several surveillance firms to its economic trade blacklist in 2021 and 2023, including Hungary-based Cytrox, Greek firm Intellexa and Israeli outfits NSO Group and Candiru.

The new policy, which is organized under the existing Immigration and National Act, applies to a broad group of individuals involved in hacking operations that in some form "surveil, harass, suppress, or intimidate individuals including journalists, activists, other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work, members of marginalized communities or vulnerable populations, or the family members of these targeted individuals."

In March last year, the United States and some of its partner countries called for strict domestic and international controls to counter the proliferation and misuse of commercial spyware.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh and Christopher Bing in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler)