New Legislation Polices Spread of Cyber Tools Abroad

Recent legislation will mandate that the State Department disclose “how it polices the sale of cyber tools and services abroad.” The legislation resulted from the discovery that American intelligence contract workers secretly assisted a spying operation abroad in the United Arab Emirates, which helped the monarchy suppress disapproval within that country.

The U.S. Department of State within 90 days must report to Congress “how it controls the spread of cyber tools and to disclose any action it has taken to punish companies for violating its policies.” Additionally, American law requires that “companies selling hacking products or services to foreign governments must first obtain permission from the State Department.” The lack of supervision has raised concerns. The new disclosure requirement is tied to the State Department’s budget bill for 2020.

“Just as we regulate the export of missiles and guns to foreign countries, we need to properly supervise the sale of cyber capabilities,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), who drafted the legislation, said. “This report will help Congress ensure these sales are advancing our foreign policy goals, especially in light of recent reports alleging human rights abuses.”

The American workers operated a hacking group and the State Department gave three companies – consulting company Good Harbor, cybersecurity company CyberPoint International, and defense company SRA International – permission to help the Emirati government with spying for the surveillance operation Project Raven. It is unclear what permission and licenses the State Department gave these companies. Project Raven used former NSA agents to “target foreign rivals, human rights activists, and journalists” as well as those critical of the government. The American hacking group was originally designed to help the UAE fight terrorism, but it shifted to help the monarch suppress internal disapproval and protest. The American group “helped local security forces track activists, who were sometimes later tortured.” The incident has raised humanitarian concerns.