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Israeli-owned cyber firms placed on US blacklist

The move is the latest attempt by the US to curb the spread of military-grade spyware
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said blacklisting of companies is an effort "to counter the risks posed by commercial spyware" ( Reuters)

A group of Europe-based firms owned by Israelis has been blacklisted by the US amid concerns their commercial spyware can be misused. 

The US Department of Commerce added Intellexa and Cytrox to its economic trade Entity List, which significantly limits the ability of Americans to conduct business with these entities. The list already includes Israel’s NSO and Candiru.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the blacklisting of the 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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Cytrox, a surveillance firm located in Hungary with operations in North Macedonia, is known for developing the spyware, Predator. The company initially received investments from the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries.

Registered in Greece with associated entities in Ireland and North Macedonia, Intellexa operates as a comprehensive solution for state surveillance requirements. 

Both firms are owned by separate Israeli nationals, including Tal Dilian, a former Israeli army intelligence officer.

According to the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, an organisation specialising in the study of hacking and spyware, the Predator spyware was utilised to hack Ayman Nour, an Egyptian politician in exile, and an unidentified Egyptian television journalist.

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In January, the Data Protection Authority in Greece imposed a fine of 50,000 euros ($56,129) on Intellexa due to their refusal to assist with an inquiry into the use of Predator for espionage against Greek political opposition leaders, journalists, military heads, and others.

In March, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to clamp down on the US government’s use of commercial spyware, citing the risks the surveillance gear poses to national security and potential abuse by foreign actors.

According to industry data compiled by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington, Israel stands as the leading country of origin for spyware.

The 2023 Intelligence Authorization Act incorporated a clause mandating former intelligence agency workers to disclose their engagements with commercial spyware firms.

Analysts and congressional aids active on spyware told Middle East Eye previously that the Biden administration’s executive order will be watched carefully in Israel.

Although Israel was not named in the 2023 Intelligence Authorization Act provisions, congressional aides told MEE that the Israeli embassy also lobbied heavily against them.

“There clearly is a nexus between the Israeli government’s interest and the country maintaining a robust surveillance sector. They are concerned about US regulations,” Steven Feldstein, an expert at CEIP, told MEE for an earlier article.

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