Wed | Feb 7, 2024 | 5:37 AM PST

The U.S. State Department announced Monday a new policy to impose visa restrictions on individuals linked to the misuse of commercial spyware tools that enable unlawful surveillance and human rights abuses globally.

"The misuse of commercial spyware threatens privacy and freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association," said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the statement. "Such targeting has been linked to arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings in the most egregious of cases."

The policy allows visa denials on a case-by-case basis for those involved in spyware misuse. This includes individuals who facilitate, direct, or financially benefit from companies providing technologies like spyware to governments for abusive monitoring of dissidents, journalists, and marginalized groups.

"The United States stands on the side of human rights and fundamental freedoms and will continue to promote accountability for individuals involved in commercial spyware misuse," Blinken asserted.

The visa restrictions signify an escalation in the Biden Administration's efforts to counter the proliferation of surveillance tools by private sector companies that pose risks to U.S. interests.

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The State Department said the spyware misuse also presents security and counterintelligence threats, with dozens of U.S. government employees targeted worldwide.

The policy sends "an important signal to those involved in this industry," according to an unnamed senior administration official.

While the actual impacts remain uncertain with visa denial actions unlikely to become public, the move addresses the corporate obfuscation around spyware development and targets accountability at an individual level across multiple companies.

Experts have welcomed the signaling effect to deter investors and highlight consequences for executives in the burgeoning and alarming industry of commercial spyware. More than 80 countries have acquired such tools over the past decade, increasingly leveraged to undermine freedoms and human rights.

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