Feb 5, 2024 - Technology

Biden admin to restrict visas for individuals abusing commercial spyware

Image of the State Department sign outside the department's headquarters

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

The State Department will start restricting visas Monday for people who are believed to be linked to misuses of commercial spyware.

Why it matters: The move marks an escalation in the Biden administration's effort to curtail abuses of commercial spyware, including cases where spyware is used to target journalists, political dissidents, members of marginalized communities and family members of people in these groups.

Details: The State Department plans to decide who would fall under this category on a case-by-case basis, a senior administration official told reporters.

  • The visa restrictions would prevent those who have profited from or facilitated the misuse of commercial spyware from traveling to the U.S., the official added.
  • The new policy is operating under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
  • The administration official declined to say whether the State Department has already drafted a list of people who are affected, how many people it intends to apply visa restrictions to and what the threshold is for the U.S. to add officials, executives or investors to this list.

What they're saying: "The new visa restriction policy adds to the tool set that the administration is using to combat the growing misuse of commercial spyware that has facilitated the repressions, restricted the free flow of information and enabled human rights' abuses," the official told reporters.

The big picture: The Biden administration has been working to track and squash foreign government and U.S. agency uses of commercial spyware.

  • Last year, President Biden signed an executive order banning U.S. government agencies and departments from using commercial spyware that could pose national security risks.
  • The Commerce Department has also placed several prolific spyware vendors — including NSO Group, Candiru, Intellexa and Cytrox — on trade blacklists in recent years.

Between the lines: Commercial spyware vendors have a "number of reasons why they would want to travel to the United States," the administration official said.

  • The official did not provide those specific reasons, but spyware executives, including NSO Group CEO Yaron Shohat, have been traveling to the U.S. over the last year to attract new customers, court lawmakers and lobby to get off of Commerce's blacklist.

What we're watching: The State Department does not intend to release details when it applies the new visa restrictions.

  • The department said in a statement Monday that new visa restrictions will apply to citizens of any country — even those who have a passport from a country that doesn't require a visa to enter the U.S.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a new statement from The State Department that clarifies the new restrictions.

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