US and allies agree initiative to restrict proliferation of commercial spyware

Move announced as summit on democracy hosted by Biden administration takes place in Washington

The United States, the UK, Australia and a number of other countries have agreed moves aimed at countering the proliferation and misuse of commercial spyware.

The White House said on Thursday that commercial spyware had been misused across the world by authoritarian regimes and in democracies.

“Too often, such powerful and invasive tools have been used to target and intimidate perceived opponents and facilitate efforts to curb dissent; limit freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly or association; enable human rights violations and abuses or suppression of civil liberties; or track or target individuals without proper legal authorisation, safeguards or oversight.”

It said the misuse of these tools “presents significant and growing risks to our national security, including to the safety and security of our government personnel, information and information systems”.


The announcement came as the Biden administration was hosting the second Summit for Democracy, which is mainly being held virtually.

The White House said the governments of Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland the UK and the United States, “recognise the threat posed by the misuse of commercial spyware and the need for strict domestic and international controls on the proliferation and use of such technology”.

On Wednesday US president Joe Biden said in an address to the summit that he had signed an executive order to apply in the United States aimed at restricting the government’s use of commercial spyware “that has been abused to target dissidents, activists and journalists around the world”.

“US taxpayer dollars should not support companies that are willing to sell their products to abet human rights violations”, he said.

The White House said the new initiative would see the various countries involved commit to work to establish “robust guardrails and procedures” to ensure that any commercial spyware use by their governments was consistent with respect for universal human rights, the rule of law and civil rights and civil liberties.

It said they would also undertake measures to prevent the export of software, technology and equipment to end users who were likely to use them for malicious cyber activity, including unauthorised intrusion into information systems as well as robust information-sharing on commercial spyware proliferation and misuse, including to better identify and track these tools.

The president maintained on Wednesday that strengthening democracy was the “defining challenge of our age” and an issue about which he was passionate. He said democracies were getting stronger, not weaker while autocracies were getting weaker, not stronger.

The White House said it would provide up to $690 million in additional funding to expand new and existing programmes and policies that support free and independent media, help combat corruption, bolster democratic reformers and human rights activists, defend free and fair elections and ensure that technology works for and not against democratic societies.

The Biden administration invited about 120 global leaders to take part in the summit. It faced some controversy, however, over who was and was not on the list. Earlier this week Pakistan announced it would not participate, in a move which was seen in part as an effort to please China, which was not invited.

Hungary and Turkey, which are Nato allies of the United States, were not on the list of invitees.

Israel, which is facing mass protests over proposed changes to its judiciary, did take part.

This came amid tensions between Washington and Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu over his judicial reform plans.

Mr Biden said this week he was “very concerned” about the judicial reform proposals and there were no plans “in the near term” to invite Mr Netanyahu to the White House.

Mr Netanyahu responded that Israel was “a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad”.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent