The Biden administration on Tuesday added two European-based hacking firms controlled by former Israeli generals to the Commerce Department’s blacklist. It’s the latest effort to curb the spyware industry that has spiraled out of control in recent years.
Two companies, Intellexa and Cytrox, have been at the center of a Greek political scandal, with government officials accused of using hacking tools against journalists and political opponents.
U.S. companies are mostly barred from doing business with designated companies under blacklist provisions, which are designed to prevent companies from using U.S. technology, such as servers and cloud storage, that they need to keep their businesses running. This is a purposeful measure. In November 2021, the White House blacklisted Israeli company NSO Group, the most prominent supplier of hacking tools.
Both Intellexa and Cytrox are controlled by former Israeli military intelligence general Tal Dirian, who, according to three former senior executives, was suspected of involvement in money mismanagement in an internal investigation in 2003. He was forced to retire from the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli military officer.
He eventually moved to Cyprus, an island nation in the European Union that has become a popular destination for surveillance firms and cyber-intelligence professionals in recent years.
Last year, Greek authorities launched an investigation into the country’s spy agency’s use of Intellexa’s main hacking tool, Predator. Another investigation was launched after a New York Times report revealed that Greece had granted permission to export the Predator to at least the African country of Madagascar.
Predator was primarily used against local politicians and journalists, but a Times investigation found that spyware was also used against an American who worked as a manager at Meta at the time the Greek spy agency was wiretapping. It turned out that it was done.
Similar to the well-known Pegasus from NSO, Predator spyware is able to infiltrate mobile phones, extract videos, photos and emails, turning the phone into a surveillance device and spying on the user.
Europe has limited accountability for the use of Predator and other tools, despite the launch of an investigation into how spyware was deployed domestically and exported to countries including Sudan and Madagascar. showing a willingness to
It’s unclear what the immediate impact of Dillian’s decision to blacklist the company would be, especially if he could evade U.S. regulations by buying key technology from other countries.
Unlike the Israeli-based NSO, Dillian’s company was not subject to Israeli regulation, allowing the former general to use the NSO’s scandal over Mr Pegasus’ abuse to his own advantage. When the Israeli government began limiting the number of countries where his NSO’s products could be sold, Dillian made up for it by selling competing spyware to those countries.
Dillian has been in and out of Israel on his own terms, and members of his team are actively trying to recruit top hackers from Israel-based companies. A significant number of Israeli hacking experts have recently received offers to work for Dillian’s company, according to four Israeli cyber industry insiders.
Earlier this year, the White House issued an executive order restricting federal agencies from using spyware tools that the government has abused to spy on dissidents, human rights activists and journalists. A few days later, the countries participating in the Democracy Summit signed an agreement. joint letter Declared efforts to curb the abuse of hacking tools.
It’s not an outright ban. For example, the White House has authorized the Drug Enforcement Administration to use another Israeli spyware product known as Graphite in operations against drug traffickers.
Hacking tools continue to proliferate, despite growing interest from Western governments in the dangers of commercial spyware. Speaking to reporters on Monday, a senior government official said one of the aims of the decision to blacklist hacking companies was to scare away potential investors looking to profit from the industry.
Ronen Bergman Contributing to the report from Tel Aviv, Matina Stevis-Gridnev From Brussels and Athens.