US blacklists two spyware firms run by an Israeli ex-general

US blacklists two spyware firms run by an Israeli ex-general

The Biden administration on Tuesday added two Europe-based hacking firms controlled by an Israeli ex-general to a Commerce Department blacklist, its latest effort to rein in a spyware industry that has spiraled out of control in recent years.

Two companies, Intellexa and Cytrox, are at the center of a political scandal in Greece, where government officials have been accused of using their hacking tools against journalists and political opponents.

Under the terms of the blacklist, US companies are largely prohibited from doing business with the designated firms, a move designed to deny them access to US technology – such as servers and cloud storage – allowing them to continue operating. Needed. In November 2021, the White House blacklisted the Israeli firm NSO Group, the best-known supplier of hacking tools.

Both Intellexa and Cytrox are controlled by Tal Dillion, a former general in Israeli military intelligence who was forced to retire from the Israel Defense Forces in 2003 after an internal investigation raised suspicions that he mismanaged funds. Included were, according to three former senior officers in the Israeli army.

He eventually moved to the EU island nation of Cyprus, which in recent years has become a favorite destination for surveillance firms and cyberintelligence experts.

Greek authorities last year launched an investigation into the use of Intellexa’s primary hacking tool, Predator, by the country’s spy agency. A separate investigation was launched after a New York Times report revealed that Greece licensed the Predator to be exported to at least one African country, Madagascar.

Predator was primarily used against local politicians and journalists, but a Times investigation found that the spyware was also used against a US citizen who was working as a manager for Meta at the time. while a Greek spy agency wiretapped him.

Like the famous Pegasus created by NSO, Predator spyware can penetrate mobile phones to extract videos, photos and emails, and turn phones into surveillance devices to spy on their users.

Europe has shown limited appetite for accountability regarding its use of Predator and other tools, even launching investigations into how the spyware was deployed domestically and exported to countries such as Sudan and Madagascar. was allowed.

The immediate impact of Mr Dillion’s decision to blacklist companies is unclear, especially if he is able to circumvent US sanctions by buying critical technology from other countries.

Unlike the NSO, which is based in Israel, Mr. Dillion’s companies are not subject to Israeli regulations, and the former general was able to exploit the scandal involving the NSO’s misuse of Pegasus to his advantage. When the Israeli government began to limit the number of countries to which NSO could sell its products, Mr. Dillion made up for the shortfall by selling his competing spyware to those countries.

Mr. Dillion enters and leaves Israel at will, and members of his team have been aggressive in trying to recruit top hackers from Israel-based firms. A large number of hacking experts in Israel have recently received offers to work for Mr. Dillion’s firms, according to four people in the Israeli cyberindustry.

Earlier this year, the White House issued an executive order banning federal agencies from using the spyware tool, which has been misused by governments to spy on dissidents, human rights activists and journalists. A few days later, a group of nations at the Democracy Summit signed a joint paper Announced its commitment to curbing the misuse of hacking tools.

This is not an absolute ban. For example, the White House has allowed the Drug Enforcement Administration to use another Israeli-made spyware product – known as Graphite – in its operations against drug traffickers.

Despite increased attention by Western governments to the dangers of commercial spyware, hacking tools continue to proliferate. Speaking to reporters on Monday, a senior administration official said one goal of the decision to blacklist hacking firms was to scare off potential investors who might expect to profit in the industry.

ronan bergman contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and matina stevis-gridneff From Brussels and Athens.

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