No to spyware: Biden administration bars U.S. federal government from using rights-abusing tech

Yesterday, March 27, in a significant victory for human rights, President Biden issued an executive order barring operational use of foreign or domestic commercial spyware by all U.S. federal agencies, unless they meet stringent requirements.

This executive order banning the use of dangerous surveillance tech, paired with recent Congressional action, makes it increasingly clear the U.S. government views spyware as a threat to human rights and democracy that requires a robust policy response. Access Now applauds the administration for its deliberative effort and urges states to follow suit and adopt similar restrictions. Michael De Dora, Senior Campaigner at Access Now

The executive order, a product of interagency coordination, prohibits any federal entity from using spyware that presents risks to U.S. national security or has been misused by foreign actors to enable human rights abuses around the world. It details specific, high bars federal agencies must meet to receive a waiver. The order was announced on the same day 45 civil society organizations, including Access Now, urged world leaders and tech investors to protect people from spyware — and just days before the second Summit for Democracy.

Targeted surveillance technology is dangerous in any hands — whether totalitarian regimes or democratic governments. This move to ban the use of spyware in U.S. government agencies couldn’t be more timely and sets an example for governments around the world to follow suit. A global moratorium on digital surveillance technology, and an end to its ongoing abuse, must come next. Rand Hammoud, Surveillance Campaigner at Access Now

In December, Congress passed into law various spyware-related provisions aimed at cracking down on the use of this invasive technology. Last year, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held a public hearing on the threats posed by foreign commercial spyware like NSO Group’s Pegasus. NSO Group was added to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List in November 2021 along with Candiru. 

Access Now will continue to engage Congress and the U.S. administration to take further action on spyware and ensure the protection of digital rights around the world.