Mar 5, 2024 - Technology

Treasury sanctions Intellexa spyware consortium in unprecedented move

The US Treasury Department in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.

Photo: Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

The Treasury Department sanctioned the Intellexa spyware consortium over reports that the company has been selling systems to governments who abuse the technology to target U.S. officials, journalists and and activists.

Why it matters: This is the first time the Treasury Department has sanctioned a spyware organization, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday.

What they're saying: "These sanctions are a groundbreaking next step in the administration's campaign to counter the proliferations and misuse of commercial spyware," the senior administration official said.

How it works: Under Treasury's new restrictions, all U.S. entities and persons are barred from interacting with any of the newly sanctioned entities.

  • Intellexa sells the Predator spyware, a "zero-click" malware that can infect a person's device without any interactions and surveil someone's location, phone calls and other activities.
  • Intellexa, which is based in Greece, works with a network of organizations to sell Predator to governments. Some of those entities — which were also sanctioned Tuesday — include Intellexa Limited, Cytrox AD, Cytrox Holdings and Thalestris Limited.
  • These organizations are based across Europe, including in North Macedonia, Hungary and Ireland.
  • Treasury also added founder Tal Jonathan Dillian and top leader Sara Aleksandra Fayssal Hamou to the sanctions list.

The big picture: The new sanctions are the latest step in the Biden administration's push to counter spyware abuses.

  • Last month, the State Department implemented visa restrictions for people who are linked to abuses of commercial spyware.
  • In July, the Commerce Department placed Intellexa and Cytrox on a trade blacklist, which prevented any U.S. entities from conducting business with those companies.
  • Last year, the president signed an executive order barring federal agencies from using spyware that's been used to surveil journalists, dissidents, politicians and other high-risk groups.

Between the lines: Lawmakers have been pushing the Treasury Department for years to levy sanctions against other spyware vendors, including Israel-based NSO Group.

Yes, but: Spyware vendors have been known to obfuscate their business transactions behind shell companies.

  • The administration official said the Treasury Department will continue tracking any new entities the sanctions companies companies create "in the event they attempt to play corporate shell games."
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