U.S. Blacklists Spyware Companies Cytrox and Intellexa

The U.S. government placed two Israeli spyware companies on a blacklist this week, all but totally cutting them off from business opportunities with American firms. The move is yet another attempt by the Biden administration to clean up the ethically bankrupt spyware industry before it spins totally out of control.

Intellexa and Cytrox, which have both been described as “Israeli-controlled,” are known for selling shady cyber exploits that can infiltrate mobile devices, steal data, and monitor a user’s activity. Critics say such tools are commonly used by governments to hack the phones of journalists and political activists and can provide full-spectrum visibility into the targets’ lives.

In a statement published Tuesday, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Standards accused both firms of “trafficking in cyber exploits used to gain access to information systems, threatening the privacy and security of individuals and organizations worldwide.”

Both companies have now been placed on the U.S. Commerce Department’s Entity List, which is a roster of foreign firms that have been deemed as working contrary to U.S. interests. Placement on the list means that American companies must secure a special license from the U.S. government if they wish to work with firms on the list. Suffice it to say, most firms don’t go through the trouble to do that and getting placed on the list can all but tank your business.

This is not the first time that an Israeli surveillance company has suffered such a fate. In 2021, the notorious NSO Group, which also sells powerful commercial malware, was placed on the list. Since being blacklisted, NSO has visibly struggled, stumbling from one financial debacle to the next.

Both Cytrox and Intellexa have been linked to a slew of surveillance scandals over the past few years, including a series of spying incidents that have come to be known as “Europe’s Watergate.” In one particular case from 2021, a Meta security executive was allegedly hacked by the Greek government using one of Cytrox’s products. The victim in question believes she may have been secretly surveilled for as long as an entire year. In another case—also in Greece—a journalist sued Intellexa after its spyware was apparently used to hack his phone. The journalist had been investigating public corruption at the time and believed his phone was hacked by the Greek government. The government later admitted that it had, indeed, spied on him.

“We remain laser focused on stemming the proliferation of digital tools for repression,” said Bureau of Industry and Security Under Secretary Alan Estevez. “Considering the impact of surveillance tools and other technologies on international human rights, I am pleased to announce these additions to our Entity List.”

The Biden administration has taken strides to curtail the more harmful excesses of the spyware industry. In addition to banning companies like Cytrox, Intellexa, and NSO, the government has passed a number of regulations during Biden’s tenure that are designed to put legal barriers around the way such tools can be used.

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