US to ban surveillance software exports to authoritarian governments

Commerce dept to prevent US companies from selling tools to hack people

Security cameras on the side of a building

The Department of Commerce has announced an interim rule that would place restrictions on exports of hardware and software that could be used for malicious cyber activities.  

The department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) made the rule, which will be active 90 days from today, and banned the export of “cyber security items.” The rule mentions “National Security and Anti-terrorism” reasons as its basis. 

The law prohibits companies from selling cyber security software and tools to authoritarian regimes or countries the US deemed to have a history of human rights abuses, such as Russia or China. It also bars countries with weapons of mass destruction or under US arms embargoes.

There are some exceptions to the rule. For example, the Commerce Department may issue a license on request to sell cyber security items to prohibited countries.

The rule said that cyber security items needed controls, as they could be used to carry out malicious cyber activities, such as surveillance or espionage.

"Today's rule is consistent with the result of BIS's negotiations in the Wassenaar Arrangement (W.A.) multilateral export control regime and with a review of comments from Congress, the private sector, academia, civil society, and other stakeholders on previously proposed BIS rulemaking in this area," the Commerce Department bureau said.

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The US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said the country was committed to working with multilateral partners to “deter the spread of certain technologies that can be used for malicious activities that threaten cybersecurity and human rights.”

“The Commerce Department’s interim final rule imposing export controls on certain cybersecurity items is an appropriately tailored approach that protects America’s national security against malicious cyber actors while ensuring legitimate cybersecurity activities,” she added.

The department has invited public comments on the rule for the next 45 days. 

The move follows European Union (EU) efforts last November to curb the exportation of cyber surveillance software and hardware to oppressive regimes. These rules covered “dual-use” products and services.

“Parliament negotiators, mandated by a 2018 report, have succeeded in substantially strengthening human rights considerations among those new criteria to avoid that certain surveillance and intrusion technologies exported from the EU contribute to human rights abuses,” it announced last year.

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