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At least 50 overseas US government employees targeted in spyware attack

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The smartphones of at least 50 US government employees in multiple countries have been targeted by hackers using spyware, the White House revealed Monday while introducing a new measure to protect officials and the public from digital spies. 

“Our efforts to identify additional targeted personnel continue, and we obviously cannot rule out even more instances,” a White House official said on a phone call Monday, noting that the staffers were stationed in 10 countries. 

It’s unclear when the attacks took place, but multiple outlets reported that in 2021, the iPhones of about a dozen State Department employees were targeted by a hacker using malicious software developed by an Israeli company – representing the largest-scale hacking attack on US officials at the time.

President Biden signed an executive order on Monday aimed at curbing spyware attacks by setting guidelines for companies that produce it. 

Joe BidenThe executive order will give the president the authority to ban companies that produce spyware from working with the US government.REUTERS

A White House official said the order gives Biden the power to ban a company’s software across all federal agencies if it produces spyware that is found to have been used to target activists, restrict political dissent or surveil Americans.

Company’s can also be barred from selling to the US government if they are found to be doing business with foreign governments that have a poor human rights track record. 

“We have clearly identified the proliferation and misuse of spyware as a threat to national security,” the official said. “The threat of misuse around the world also implicates our core foreign policy interests.”

SpywareRoughly a dozen State Department employees were the victims of a targeted spyware attack back in 2021.Getty Images/iStockphoto

If the intelligence community finds that a particular commercial spyware platform was used to help target US government employees, then it too would be subject to new restrictions.

“We needed to have a standard where if we know that a company is selling to a country that is engaged in these outlined activities, that in and of itself is a red flag,” a senior Biden administration official said.

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