US blacklists Israeli-controlled firms behind Predator spyware

Commerce Department restricts ability of Intellexa and Cytrox to do business with American companies for ‘threatening the privacy and security of individuals and organizations’

File: A person types on a laptop keyboard, June 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
File: A person types on a laptop keyboard, June 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

WASHINGTON — The United States blacklisted on Tuesday four Israeli-controlled firms whose spyware has allegedly been used by governments to hack the phones of opponents.

The Commerce Department announced that Greece- and Ireland-incorporated units of Intellexa, and Hungary- and North Macedonia-based units of Cytrox were placed on its Entities List, which tightly restricts Americans from doing business with them.

The Commerce Department said Intellexa and Cytrox dealt in exploits to break into IT systems, “threatening the privacy and security of individuals and organizations worldwide.”

The action came after both so-called mercenary surveillance vendors have been accused of supplying spyware that was discovered on the phones of governments’ political opponents.

Intellexa and Cytrox are behind the spyware called Predator, according to cybersecurity firm Talos.

According to University of Toronto’s The Citizen Lab, which studies hacking and spyware, Predator was used to hack exiled Egyptian politician Ayman Nour as well as an Egyptian television journalist whose identity was kept anonymous.

Meanwhile, in January Greece’s Data Protection Authority fined Intellexa 50,000 euros ($56,000) for refusing to cooperate with an investigation into the use of Predator to spy on Greek political opposition leaders, journalists, military chiefs and others.

The Citizen Lab said in a 2021 report that Cytrox and its Predator tool are part of the “Intellexa Alliance.”

Screen capture of the Intellexa website, December 8, 2022. (Intellexa; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Intellexa was established by former Israeli Defense Force intelligence officer Tal Dilian, who 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 Apple’s IOS and the Android operating systems.

In a report last month, the Haaretz newspaper said state-owned defense contractor Israel Aerospace Industries was an early investor in Cytrox but sold its shares around early 2019 to Intellexa.

In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the blacklisting of the four companies was part of a broad US government effort “to counter the risks posed by commercial spyware.”

Such spyware “poses distinct and growing counterintelligence and security risks to the United States, including to the safety and security of US government personnel and their families,” he said.

This spyware has also been used for repression and human rights abuses, “including to intimidate political opponents and curb dissent,” Blinken said.

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