Intellexa’s founder sanctioned by US for spying on American citizens

The U.S. government announced Tuesday sanctions against the founder of the notorious spyware company Intellexa and one of his business partners. This is the first time the U.S. government has targeted specific people, in addition to companies, with sanctions related to the misuse of commercial spyware. These sanctions will impact Dilian and Hamou specifically, but they will also send a message to other people involved in the spyware industry. “If I’m a mercenary spyware company, I should be getting really worried,” added Scott-Railton. And earlier this year, the U.S. government announced that the State Department could impose visa restrictions to people believed to have been involved or facilitated the abuse of commercial spyware around the world.

The United States government has announced a groundbreaking decision amidst its battle against the misuse of commercial spyware. In an unprecedented move, specific individuals have been targeted with sanctions alongside their companies. The two individuals targeted are Tal Dilian, founder of Intellexa, and Sara Aleksandra Fayssal Hamou, a lesser-known figure in the spyware industry.

This bold step signals the escalation of efforts by the White House and the U.S. government to control the dangerous spyware industry. Brian E. Nelson, the U.S. Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, stated, “Today’s actions represent a tangible step forward in discouraging the misuse of commercial surveillance tools, which increasingly present a security risk to the United States and our citizens.”

“The United States remains focused on establishing clear guardrails for the responsible development and use of these technologies while also ensuring the protection of human rights and civil liberties of individuals around the world,” he continued in a press release.

The sanctions by the U.S. Treasury are specifically against Dilian and Hamou, as well as the Intellexa Consortium which includes several companies involved in the development and use of spyware. The Treasury alleges that these individuals and companies played a key role in the creation of spyware used to target Americans, including government officials, journalists, and policy experts. However, no evidence has been provided to support the claim that Intellexa spyware was used against U.S. officials.

The sanctions also reach beyond the two individuals and target the Intellexa Consortium, a Greece-based company that exports its tools to authoritarian regimes, and other affiliated companies in Ireland, North Macedonia, and Hungary.

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Sanctions are a crucial tool in the U.S. government’s fight against cybercriminals, ransomware actors, and now, spyware makers. By imposing sanctions by name, they aim to make it difficult for these individuals to profit from commercial surveillance. The sanctions prohibit U.S. individuals and companies from dealing with the sanctioned entities, including financial transactions and material or technological support.

In an official background call with the media, a U.S. government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, stated, “The impact and scale on these two individuals is going to change their lives. Their lives – as they know it – are over.” They added that these sanctions will not only affect Dilian and Hamou, but they also send a strong message to others involved in the spyware industry.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, who has been investigating government spyware for over a decade, shared his thoughts on the matter, stating, “If I’m a mercenary spyware company, I should be getting really worried…..The reckless companies that are at the heart of that problem are going to feel the considerable displeasure of the U.S. government.”

This is not the first time the Biden administration has taken action against commercial spyware makers. In 2021, the Department of Commerce imposed export controls on NSO Group and Candiru, both based in Israel. Later, in 2023, similar controls were placed on Cytrox and Intellexa. And earlier this year, the State Department announced that visa restrictions could be imposed on individuals believed to have been involved in the abuse of commercial spyware globally.

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Ava Patel

Ava Patel is a cultural critic and commentator with a focus on literature and the arts. She is known for her thought-provoking essays and reviews, and has a talent for bringing new and diverse voices to the forefront of the cultural conversation.

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