US sanctions spyware firm and its Israeli executives for targeting US journalists, officials

WiSpear CEO Tal Dilian is wanted for questioning by police in Cyprus in connection with the operations of a $9 million 'spy van' owned by his company. (Screen capture: Forbes)
WiSpear CEO Tal Dilian is wanted for questioning by police in Cyprus in connection with the operations of a $9 million 'spy van' owned by his company. (Screen capture: Forbes)

The US Treasury Department announces it has sanctioned two people and a Greece-based commercial spyware company headed by a former Israeli military officer that developed, operated and distributed technology used to target US government officials, journalists and policy experts.

The sanctions target Intellexa Consortium, which the US says has sold and distributed commercial spyware and surveillance tools for targeted and mass surveillance campaigns. Other entities associated with Intellexa — including North Macedonia-based Cytrox AD, Hungary-based Cytrox Holdings ZRT and Ireland-based Thalestris Limited — were sanctioned for their parts in developing and distributing a package of tools known as Predator.

Biden administration officials said it marks the first time that the Treasury Department has sanctioned people or entities for the misuse of spyware.

Predator allows a user to infiltrate electronic devices through zero-click attacks that require no user interaction for the spyware to infect the device. The spyware, which has been used in dozens of countries, has allowed for the unauthorized extraction of data, geolocation tracking and access to personal information on compromised devices.

“Today’s actions represent a tangible step forward in discouraging the misuse of commercial surveillance tools, which increasingly present a security risk to the United States and our citizens,” says Brian Nelson, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Intellexa was created in 2019 by former Israeli military officer Tal Dilian.

Dilian and his partner Sara Hamou, a corporate off-shoring specialist who has provided managerial services to Intellexa, were also sanctioned as individuals.

Intellexa was already placed last year on the US Treasury Department’s Entities List, which tightly restricts Americans from doing business with them. Today’s announcement amounts to an escalation in Washington’s targeting of Dilian and his firm.

Dilian was previously associated with NSO Group, creator of the notorious spyware Pegasus.

Forbes reported that Dilian took over Cytrox in 2019 to make Intellexa a “one-stop-shop” for hacking and electronic surveillance services and products.

According to marketing materials, Intellexa offered customers the ability to hack both Android and Apple’s iOS operating systems.

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