The Biden administration blacklisted two European-based hacking firms controlled by former Israeli generals on Tuesday from the Commerce Department, its latest effort to try to rein in a spyware industry that has been out of control for years. recently
The two firms, 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, American companies are largely barred from doing business with the named firms, a move designed to starve them of the US technology – such as servers and cloud storage – they need continue operations. In November 2021, the White House blacklisted the Israeli firm NSO Group, the most famous supplier of hacking tools.
Both Intellexa and Cytrox are controlled by Tal Dilian, a former general in Israeli military intelligence who was forced to resign from the Defense Forces in 2003 after an internal investigation raised suspicions that he was involved in the mismanagement of funds, according to three former -senior. officers in the Israeli military.
He eventually moved to Cyprus, an island nation of the European Union that has emerged in recent years for surveillance firms and cyber-intelligence experts.
Greek authorities launched an investigation last year into the use of Intellexa’s main hacking tool, Predator, by the country’s spy agency. A separate investigation was launched after a report from the New York Times revealed that Greece had licenses to export Predator to at least one African country, Madagascar.
Predator was mainly used against local politicians and journalists, but a Times investigation found that the spyware was also used against a US citizen who at the time worked as a manager for Meta and was wiretapped by a Greek spy agency .
Like the better-known Pegasus, made by NSO, Predator spyware can penetrate mobile phones and extract videos, photos and emails, and can turn the phones into surveillance devices for spying on their users.
Europe has shown limited appetite for accountability for the use of Predator and other tools, even as investigations have been launched into how the spyware was allowed to be deployed domestically and exported to countries including Sudan and Madagascar.
The immediate impact of the decision to blacklist Mr. Dilian’s companies is not clear, especially if he is able to circumvent American restrictions by buying critical technology from other countries.
Unlike NSO, which is based in Israel, Mr. Dilian’s businesses are not subject to Israeli regulations, and the former general was able to use the scandals surrounding NSO’s Pegasus abuse to his advantage. When the Israeli government began limiting the number of nations to which NSO could sell its products, Mr. Dilian filled the void by selling competing spy products to those countries.
Mr. Dilian comes and leaves Israel as he pleases, and members of his team have been aggressive in recruiting the best hackers from Israeli-based firms. A significant number of hacking experts in Israel have recently received offers to work for Mr. Dilian’s firms, according to four people in the Israeli cyber industry.
Earlier this year, the White House issued an executive order restricting federal agencies from using spy tools that governments have misused to spy on dissidents, human rights activists and journalists. A day later, a group of nations at the Summit for Democracy signed a common letter confirming their commitment to stop the misuse of hacking tools.
It is not a total ban. For example, the White House allowed the Drug Enforcement Administration to use another Israeli spy product – called Graphite – in its operations against drug traffickers.
Even with 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 the hacking firms was to scare off potential investors who might anticipate profits in the industry.
Ronen Bergman he contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels and Athens.