Senator Wyden Seems Surprised By US Govt Spyware Stance

The US International Trade Administration (ITA) has admitted it promotes the sale of American-approved commercial spyware to foreign governments, and won’t answer questions about it, according to US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Wyden, in a letter to US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, has demanded answers about the surveillance and policing tech that ITA – a US government agency – pushes to other countries. And he wants the agency to name names when it comes to which companies’ spyware is being promoted with US tax dollars.

ITA is housed within the US Commerce Department and tasked with promoting American exports. Wyden chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which has responsibility for international trade policy, and he’s not happy.

The senator first requested info from ITA about promoting spyware abroad in May 2022. At that time, the agency confirmed it had promoted this type of technology, but it didn’t answer questions about which products it endorsed and in which markets. 

Both of these things are problematic. Commercial spyware has historically been used to target activists, journalists, and political dissidents, and when it ends up in the hands of authoritarian regimes, these people can end up dead.

In March, the agency told Wyden’s office that it had a new policy to restrict the promotion of these types of products in the works — but ITA refused to share that policy without a formal request.

Wyden didn’t hesitate. In a letter [PDF] on Friday, he asked the agency to see the policy, and also demanded that ITA provide a ton of details about the surveillance technology companies it works with, and how it makes decisions about which businesses to assist.

ITA must be transparent about its past and current promotion of these technologies abroad

“As you know, the Biden administration has recognized that surveillance technologies are frequently used by governments to invade the privacy of their citizens, enable violence and discrimination, and disproportionately harm marginalized and vulnerable communities,” Wyden wrote. 

“Given the administration’s stated interest in limiting the human rights abuses made possible by these technologies, ITA must be transparent about its past and current promotion of these technologies abroad.”

Specifically, Wyden wants the ITA to list the “surveillance, policing, or public safety technology companies” it has provided trade assistance to over the last five years.

This includes companies selling predictive policing systems; biometric surveillance technologies; high-altitude aerial surveillance systems; international mobile subscriber identity catchers and other cell-site simulators; software or hardware used to gain unauthorized access to a mobile phone, computer, computer service, or computer network; databases containing sensitive personal information; surveillance products that exploit vulnerabilities in SS7 and Diameter to remotely track phones, intercept text messages and calls, and deliver malware; bulk internet monitoring technology; social media monitoring software; gunshot detection systems; and data management systems that provide storage, integration, and analysis of data collected from surveillance technologies.

In addition to naming any business ITA has worked with that provide any of the listed goods and services, Wyden wants to know which foreign markets and clients they have targeted, and what rules — if any — “limit the discretion with which ITA decides to assist companies in these sectors.” Ethics, in other words. He also asks about the training Commerce Dept officials receive about these technologies, including training about the dangers that surveillance products pose in markets with a high risk of human rights violations.

The letter to the Dept of Commerce comes a couple of months after US President Joe Biden issued an executive order to (somewhat) prohibit the US government from using commercial spyware.

In issuing the order, the Biden administration pointed out that commercial spyware has been used by authoritarian regimes to target activists and journalists, has been deployed without proper authority in democracies, and poses a security risk to the US and other nations. ®