(Reuters) – At least 50 U.S. government employees stationed in 10 countries were exposed to commercial hacking tools, commonly known as spyware, a senior administration official said, highlighting the growing threat from offensive cyber vendors and prompting the White House to introduce rules to curb the spying.
US President Joseph Biden signed an executive order on Monday to curb the harmful use of digital spying tools around the world that target US personnel and civil society.
The extent of such hacking had not been previously known, but in 2021 Reuters reported that the Apple Inc. iPhones of at least nine US State Department employees were targeted by an unknown attacker who used sophisticated spyware developed by an Israeli company.
At the time, it represented the most famous hack of US officials through such tools.
The senior administration official cited Reuters̵7; earlier reporting as a rationale for the broader internal government review.
The new executive order is designed to pressure the secretive industry by placing new restrictions on the purchasing decisions of US government defense, law enforcement and intelligence agencies, a senior official said.
By more tightly regulating which organizations can do business with the U.S. government, the idea is that it will change the way the shady market works and limit sales to certain actors, the official said.
“We have clearly identified the proliferation and misuse of spyware as a threat to national security,” the official said, based on a wide-ranging review by the US government that began in 2021. “The threat of misuse around the world also implicates our core foreign policy interests. “
Makers of such hacking tools could be barred from selling to U.S. authorities if they are found to be doing business with foreign governments that have poor human rights records, based on analysis by the U.S. State Department and others.