The US government blacklisted two Israeli spyware companies this week, almost completely cutting them off from business opportunities with US companies. This decision is another attempt by the Biden administration to clean up the ethical bankruptcy spyware industry before it spirals out of control.
Intellexa and Cytrox, which have both been described as “controlled by Israel”, are known to sell shady cyber exploits that can infiltrate mobile devices, steal data and monitor a user’s activity. Critics say these tools are commonly used by governments to hack into the phones of journalists and political activists and can provide full visibility into the lives of targets.
In A declaration Released on Tuesday, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Standards accused the two companies of “trafficking in cyber exploits used to gain access to information systems, threatening the privacy and security of individuals and organizations in the whole world”.
Both companies have now been placed on the US Commerce Department’s Entity List, which is a list of foreign companies that have been deemed to be working against US interests. Placement on the list means that US companies must obtain a special license from the US government if they want to work with companies on the list. Suffice it to say that most companies don’t bother to do this and being listed can do anything but harm your business.
Not the first time an Israeli surveillance company has suffered such a fate. In 2021, the notorious NSO group, which also sells powerful commercial malware, was placed on the list. Since being blacklisted, NSO obviously struggledstumbling from one financial meltdown to another.
Cytrox and Intellexa have been linked to a series of surveillance scandals over the past few years, including a series of spying incidents known as “Europe’s Watergate.” In one particular case from 2021, a Meta Security Officer was allegedly hacked by the Greek government using one of Cytrox’s products. The victim in question thinks she may have been secretly watched for an entire year. In another case, also in Greece, a journalist sued Intellexa after his spyware was apparently used to hack into his phone. The journalist was investigating public corruption at the time and believed his phone had been hacked by the Greek government. The government later admitted that it had indeed spied on him.
“We remain focused on stemming the proliferation of digital tools of law enforcement,” said Alan Estevez, deputy secretary of the Bureau of Industry and Security. “Given the impact of surveillance tools and other technologies on international human rights, I am pleased to announce these additions to our list of entities.”
The Biden administration has taken steps to curb the spyware industry’s most harmful excesses. In addition to banning companies like Cytrox, Intellexa and NSO, the government passed a number of regulations during Biden’s tenure that are designed to put legal barriers around how these tools can be used.