White House sanctions former Israeli intel officer and commercial spyware maker

by Braxton Taylor

In the latest move against makers of spyware, the U.S. has placed new sanctions on a former Israeli intelligence officer who helped authoritarian regimes obtain surveillance technology that has been used against U.S. government officials, journalists, and policy experts, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Tal Dilian founded Intellexa Consortium, whose Predator software suite includes spyware that, placed on an adversary’s smartphone, can track their location, activate their camera, and secretly download files.

The company “has enabled the proliferation of commercial spyware and surveillance technologies around the world, including to authoritarian regimes,” according to a Treasury Department statement. “The Predator spyware has been deployed by foreign actors in an effort to covertly surveil U.S. government officials, journalists, and policy experts.”

Predator has been used to spy on Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D, two members of the House Homeland Security Committee, according to an October report from Amnesty International. 

Predator also played a role in the 2022 Greek election, where investigators found it on 33 people’s phones, including cabinet ministers and journalists. 

Portions of Intellexa Consortium are located in Greece, Ireland, North Macedonia, Hungary and elsewhere. The sanctions also target Sara Aleksandra Fayssal Hamou, whom the State Department describes as a “corporate off-shoring specialist who has provided managerial services to the Intellexa Consortium.”

The Biden administration has been ramping up legal tools to target spyware makers. In November 2021, the State Department blacklisted Israel’s NSO Group. Last March, the White House issued an executive order prohibiting the government use of spyware.

But in a good illustration of the challenge of banning spyware tools that that may be useful for gathering intelligence, the U.S. government reportedly paid NSO Group for a tool that can track mobile phone users around the globe.

Tuesday’s announcement marks “the first time that the U.S. government has leveraged any sanctions authority against commercial spyware vendors for enabling misuse of their tools,” according to a White House official who spoke with reporters on Tuesday on background.

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