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Biden administration sanctions makers of commercial spyware used to surveil US

Washington CNN  —  The Biden administration sanctioned multiple software vendors on Tuesday accused of helping repressive governments spy on everyone from US officials to journalists to human rights activists — expanding a US crackdown on the shadowy industry behind what’s known as “commercial spyware.” The Treasury Department said that as part of the move, it was targeting two individuals who help lead a coalition of companies known as the Intellexa Consortium, along with several corporate members of that group. “The Intellexa Consortium’s activities pose a counterintelligence threat to the US government, and as widely reported by investigative journalists, civil society groups and tech companies, have enabled human rights abuses around the world,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday morning. The sanctions bar US companies and citizens from doing business with the named individuals and companies, a list that includes Tal Jonathan Dilian, Intellexa’s founder, as well as Sara Aleksandra Fayssal Hamou, one of its business managers. The penalties represent the US government’s first-ever use of sanctions against sellers of commercial spyware, a technology that has drawn scrutiny over its secretive ability to collect geolocation data, microphone recordings, contact lists and communications records from hacked smartphones without the knowledge of its targets. According to a report last month by Google, Intellexa’s Predator spyware has been sold to the governments of Egypt, Armenia, Greece, Madagascar,  Côte d’Ivoire, Serbia, Spain and Indonesia. Described as a competitor to the more widely known NSO Group and its Pegasus software, the Intellexa Consortium charges customers millions of dollars for its technology, according to business documents obtained and published in 2022 by Amnesty International. Bad actors have used commercial spyware to target at least 50 US government officials, the Biden administration said last year as it unveiled an executive order banning federal agencies from using the technology. In 2021, the US government said NSO Group’s spyware had been used against roughly a dozen State Department employees serving in Africa. Several of the companies being sanctioned this week had earlier been added to a Commerce Department blacklist that requires US companies to obtain a license before trading with them. The US government has sought to build international support for curbing the use of commercial spyware, and last month, it announced visa restrictions for anyone seeking to enter the United States who has been involved in the commercial spyware industry. The use of commercial spyware “has been linked to arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings in the most egregious of cases,” the State Department said at the time. On Tuesday, the Biden administration vowed to watch closely for signs that Intellexa may seek to circumvent the sanctions. “Together,” the senior US official said, “these actions send a clear message to commercial spyware vendors and those that enable them that their irresponsible business practices that result in the targeting of Americans and global human rights abuses will be met with clear consequences.” The sanctions follow a 2021 letter by Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden calling for financial sanctions to be imposed on companies that facilitate technology-enabled surveillance.