The Meteoric Rise and Fall of the Spyware Business Throughout the World

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The Israeli company NSO Group, which made the most well-known hacking tools, was banned by the Biden administration last year. This was done to stop human rights activists, dissidents, and journalists from using spyware against them.

In spite of this, the worldwide market for commercial spyware continues to thrive, enabling governments to penetrate mobile devices and scavenge data. The federal government of the United States employs it, too.

Five sources acquainted with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s activities have verified that the DEA is using commercial spyware for the first time. The malware in question comes from a separate Israeli outfit.

Meanwhile, spyware usage continues to rise throughout the globe, with new companies filling the hole created by the blacklisting by hiring former Israeli cyber intelligence veterans, some of whom served for NSO. When it comes to government surveillance, the next generation of companies has changed the game. Previously, such advanced technology was only available in a select few countries.

One company, which is run out of Greece by an ex-Israeli commander and sells a hacking tool called Predator, is at the centre of a political crisis in Athens because it used Predator to spy on politicians and journalists.

Dozens of additional nations have been identified as having used Predator after 2021, demonstrating persistent demand among governments and the lack of effective international efforts to limit its deployment.

The Times’ investigation is based on interviews with more than two dozen government and judicial officials, law enforcement agents, business executives, and hacking victims in five countries. They also looked at thousands of pages of documents, such as sealed court documents in Cyprus, classified parliamentary testimonies in Greece, and a secret Israeli military police investigation.

The most advanced spyware products, like NSO’s Pegasus, offer zero-click technology, which allows them to secretly and remotely extract everything from a target’s mobile phone without the user clicking on a malicious link to grant Pegasus remote access. They could also put tracking software and secret recording software on the phone, which would turn it into a spying tool.

There is a big market for both hacking tools that only require one click and cheaper ones that don’t have this feature.

Government agencies have hacked into cell phones used by criminal organisations and terrorist cells with the use of commercial spyware. However, many governments, both totalitarian and democratic, have used it to spy on political opponents and journalists.

This has resulted in governments providing sometimes convoluted justifications for their use, with the White House now taking the stance that the justification for deploying such powerful weapons depends in part on who is employing them and against whom.

In this environment, the United States has played both arsonist and firefighter, but the Biden administration is attempting to bring some order to the global chaos.During the Trump administration, the CIA bought Pegasus for the government of Djibouti, which used the hacking tool for at least a year. This is in addition to the DEA’s use of spyware, in this case Graphite, developed by the Israeli firm Paragon.

The Use of Diplomatic Influence

NSO sold Pegasus to intelligence agencies and government departments for over a decade. Before the business could export its malware to any law enforcement or intelligence organisation, it had to get permits from the Israeli government.

It gave the Israeli government diplomatic clout with nations like Mexico, India, and Saudi Arabia that were considering buying Pegasus. But there was a growing body of evidence that Pegasus had been mistreated.

The government responded under Biden. A year ago, the Commerce Department blacklisted NSO and another Israeli corporation, Candiru, prohibiting any further contact with the two cybercriminal organisations.

In October, when it released its plan for national security policy, the White House said that it was worried about spyware and promised to fight “illegal use of technology, including commercial spyware and surveillance technologies, and we will stand against digital authoritarianism.”

In light of the counterintelligence threats presented to the United States by foreign commercial spyware, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are working on legislation that would require the director of national intelligence to conduct an evaluation of these threats. A provision of the bill would give the Director of National Intelligence the power to prohibit the deployment of spyware by any intelligence agency.

Nonetheless, there are always a few outliers. The DEA’s use of Graphite, a hacking tool developed by the Israeli firm Paragon, will be permitted by the White House while it carries out its mission to combat international drug trafficking organisations.

An anonymous senior White House source indicated that the upcoming executive order would target malware that presented “counterintelligence and security problems” or had been misused by foreign agencies. According to the person, the White House intends to end its deal with Paragon if such proof becomes public.

“The administration has made clear that it will not employ investigative techniques that have been used by foreign governments or people to target the U.S. government and its personnel, or to target civil society, crush dissent, or support human rights violations,” the source added. We anticipate that all government entities will adhere to this policy.

Graphite malware, like the NSO tool Pegasus, may infiltrate a victim’s mobile device and steal sensitive information. Unlike Pegasus, Graphite usually gets information from the cloud after it has been backed up on the phone.

The financial implications of the Biden administration’s decision to blacklist NSO and Candiru cannot be overstated. Two high-ranking Israeli officials and an IT business executive say that the Defense Ministry of Israel has tightened the rules on cybersecurity in the country so that other companies don’t get put on a “blacklist.”

Many Israeli spyware businesses, most notably NSO, have suffered greatly as a result of fewer nations purchasing their products. A further three have failed and been declared bankrupt.

However, some were able to take advantage of the shifting conditions.

A New Predator Has Emerged.

Three top Israeli military intelligence officials say that retired general Mr. Dilian was forced to leave the IDF in 2003 because of concerns that he had been involved in stealing money.In the end, he moved to Cyprus, an island in the European Union that has become a centre for surveillance companies and cyberintelligence experts in recent years.

Mr. Dilian co-founded Circles, a firm that used an Israeli-developed eavesdropping technology known as Signaling System 7 in 2008. After selling it, he founded several other firms to produce and market spy gear.

He was very proud of the fact that he had hired some of the best hackers in the world, including several ex-spyware experts from the Israeli military’s top cyberintelligence unit.

In 2020, after Mr. Dilian was evicted from Cyprus, he moved his company, Intellexa, to Athens and started heavily promoting his new spyware software, Predator.

In order to infect a phone with Predator, the target user must click on a link; however, Pegasus may infect a phone without any human intervention. Therefore, the predator has to grow more creative if it wants to attract the clicks of its apprehensive prey.

Predator infestations often take the form of custom-made IMs or spoof websites that include malicious links. According to specialists, once the phone is infected, the malware has many of the same surveillance capabilities as Pegasus. About 300 of these sites were catalogued by specialists in a meta-examination of Predator.

The Times looked into secret employment records and LinkedIn profiles of employees and found that the business had hired at least eight Israelis, some of whom had worked in Israeli intelligence.

Meta and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity watchdog organisation, found indicators of the presence of Predator in Armenia, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Madagascar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Colombia, the Ivory Coast, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Germany. Internet checks for servers linked to the malware led researchers to these spots.

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